Home and Hope for a Congolese Teen Refugee on the Run
Posted by HIAS – NY on Wed, Jan 15, 2014 at 11:29 am
Photo: Glenna Gordon for HIAS
Though Nicia* is only 16 years old, her beyond-her-years wisdom has already saved her life several times over.
Two years ago, Nicia was living with her mother and stepfather in Boko, Congo, when war broke out in their village, forcing them to flee. Nicia’s stepfather, a Mai Mai rebel fighter, took the family to the rebels’ camp, hoping they would be protected. Shortly after they arrived, a rebel approached the family asking to marry Nicia.
Only 14 at the time, Nicia insisted she did not want to be married, but the man would not be rejected. Two weeks later, while her mother was away on the farm, the man returned to their home, took her by force, and sexually assaulted her.
What she did next was very brave—especially from someone so young. “I started thinking, and I decided I would trick the man,” Nicia explains. She told him if he really wanted her as a bride, he needed to give her money (the equivalent of $200) to buy everything they would need for a life together.
He agreed. Then she fled for her life.
Nicia made her way to Tanzania with the help of several good Samaritans but was not able to register there as a refugee. Running short on funds, she took a bus to Nairobi, Kenya, where she found a community leader who helped her make a fresh start.
Familiar with HIAS’ child protection and psychological services, he took her to HIAS’ Nairobi office. She quickly entered HIAS’ foster program, which places dozens of unaccompanied minors each year.
HIAS worked with Nicia, conducted a Best Interest Determination, and secured an arrangement to ensure her welfare. Nicia met Grace*, the woman who would become her foster mother, at church. Grace had fled Congo after rebels took her village and her husband disappeared. She too had been a victim of sexual assault and only managed to escape to Kenya with the help of her own church.
Grace smiles warmly at her new daughter. Persecution and conflict forced these women to flee their homes and families, but their strength and the help of good people is helping them rebuild their lives.
A generous and modest woman, Grace became Nicia’s foster mother because, she says, “I already have five children living with me, so what is one more?” A single mother, she depends entirely on aid and earnings from casual labor to sustain her family.
To help Nicia start anew, HIAS gave her money for a school uniform and school registration fees, as well as a mattress, blanket, and bed sheets. Nicia says she’s been happy in her new home with her foster mom and little brothers and sisters.
Grace takes any work that comes her way to help feed her children and is happy to let Nicia live with her because she sees her as a child just like any of her own. “The most important thing is that God has given me strength,” Grace explains. “So, I don’t discriminate.”
With what little she has, Grace takes care of her so well that the only thing Nicia desires now is to go to school and get the best education she can. “I want to be a reporter because I like helping people by telling their stories,” she says.
It’s clear she is as compassionate as she is clever. Asked what she would advise other young women who’ve been through an ordeal similar to her own, she hesitates to give advice. “Everyone has their own mind,” she says. “Everybody should do what their own heart tells them to do because that will be what’s right for them.”
* Names have been changed for purposes of privacy and protection