Denise is a refugee and asylum seeker from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a nation crippled by colonialism, ransacked of its resources — first by the Belgians, then by its own inept rulers — and fraught with ongoing conflict. A spillover of violence from neighboring Rwanda has plagued the eastern portion of the country for two decades, and has given rise to the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war; the area has been called “the worst place in the world to be a woman,” though men and children suffer, as well.
The emotional effects of the hardships one inevitably endures living in such a place are not immediately apparent in Denise who, diminutive and with an endearing smile, comes across as a sort of fairy godmother. I saw her eyes light up upon entering the greenhouse on her first day at the farm.
When I cautiously ask about her life in the DRC, however, the smile fades and her eyes grow wary; for refugees like Denise and the others in the Urban Farm Recovery Project, a cheerful veneer is always masking painful memories.
For 15 years, Denise directed the non-profit organization Women’s Solidarity for Family Welfare, providing healthcare and psychological assistance to women and children victims of violence. She lobbied local, national, and international governments and organizations in an effort to bring attention to the atrocities she witnessed in her home country.
“I tried to put my voice to the authorities to put an end to those situations,” she tells me in careful, precise English. “I’m happy because I think my work made a change.”
Denise also acted as a mediator, helping families cope with traumatic experiences and reconcile with each other. In the Congo, victims of rape are often ostracized by their families and communities; in some cases, they go so far as to kill the victim for bringing them “shame.” Incidences like this have made the DRC, in those rare instances when it is mentioned in Western media, synonymous with sexual violence and other human rights abuses.
Despite the progress she felt she was making, or perhaps because of it, Denise suffered persecution — at whose hands she wouldn’t say, though in the Congo there’s no shortage of potential perpetrators. The police, the Congolese army, as well as dozens of ethnic and political militias have all been accused of using rape as a form of control, subjugation, and terror; Denise’s humanitarian work on this issue would have drawn the ire of any of them. In January of 2013 she fled the DRC and came to New York, forced to leave her job and her family behind.
Thinking of the women she helped and the abrupt end to her work is difficult for Denise. After a moment of pained silence she concludes, almost apologetically, “I have to think about myself, too.”
Upon arriving in New York she was admitted into a church-run homeless shelter. Far from home and with no acquaintances, the depression and immense anxiety of life as a refugee began to sink in. She was denied even that most fundamental right of the immigrant: the camaraderie of a local ethnic community. Only one Congolese family attended the same church as her, and she feared that perhaps they belonged to the same group who’d persecuted her back home. She descended into a depression that left her hospitalized for a month.
“I felt like I fell in a ditch,” she says. “I felt that everything was dark all around me.”
Her only help during this period came from the African Services Committee, who provided her with a lawyer and a social worker to handle her asylum case and treat her depression. She slowly recovered, and was eventually introduced to the Refugee and Immigrant Fund.
“When I met [RIF founder and director] Maria, it was as if God sent me an angel,” she says.
Denise applied and was accepted to the Urban Farm Recovery Project for the 2014 season, where she trains every Wednesday alongside RIF and Brooklyn Grange staff, as well as American interns and three other RIF participants, also refugees from various African countries. The tranquil environment of the rooftop farm has helped ease her depression and reminds her of the small garden she tended at her home in the Congo.
“I cried with joy when I saw it,” she tells me earnestly. “I felt that I can be useful and do something that gives me hope.” The modest stipend she receives from the program allows her to communicate with her daughters each week, and her co-participants at the farm have become a sort of surrogate family. In addition to conversing with the RIF and Brooklyn Grange staffs, she’s begun taking English classes on her own twice a week.
Still, as a refugee in New York, Denise faces daily difficulties. Her computer modem was recently stolen when her room at the shelter was broken into, and she continues to get debilitating migraines. She’s received no answer regarding her asylum request, made last November — “Just waiting, just waiting” — and she worries continuously about her family.
Within this limbo of uncertainty, the Urban Farm Recovery Project serves as a weekly respite from worry and a link to the community. Denise constantly praises the kindness of everyone she’s met through the program; when I suggest that she deserves that kindness after all the selfless work she did in the Congo, she dismisses the compliment, too modest to accept it.
Denise will continue training alongside the other participants until the end of the season in October, by which time she hopes to have been granted her asylum. Then she can continue the work she feels called to: advocating for others in the non-profit field.
“I want to be useful,” she tells me, her smile reappearing. “I want to contribute.”
To support a newcomer like Denise on their journey to social and economic integration in the U.S., please consider making a tax deductible donation here.
(Written by Chris Barrett for RIF)