The ongoing Congolese refugee crisis is the product of nearly 16 years of armed conflict and unrest in the DRC, with the eastern provinces of North Kivu and South Kivu bearing the brunt of the violence. By the end of 2012, more than 2.4 million Congolese were internally displaced and more than 460,000 had sought asylum in neighboring countries. The highly complex conflict, which at times has involved the armies of nine countries and dozens of other armed groups, was touched off in 1996 when Rwanda invaded the DRC in pursuit of the génocidaires, the perpetrators of the 1994 genocide who had taken refuge in eastern DRC and were regrouping in order to retake political leadership in Rwanda. Years of conflict followed, including the first and second Congo wars, in 1996 and 1998. The 1998 war is sometimes called “Africa’s World War” because of the number of countries involved in the conflict.
Although a peace accord was signed in 2003, unrest still plagues eastern DRC, including the provinces of North and South Kivu, Orientale, and Katanga, as armed groups fight among themselves and with the central government for control of the region and its rich resources. According to a 2012 U.S. Department of State fact sheet on the Congo, armed groups have committed “numerous, serious abuses with impunity—some of which may constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity—including unlawful killings, disappearances, mass rape, and torture.” Sexual violence, used as a weapon of war, is so common in eastern DRC that human rights groups have called the area “the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman.”
The Land and People
The DRC is one of the world’s poorest countries, yet contains an abundance of natural resources. Located in central Africa, the DRC is a vast country with a land area about the size of Western Europe or the United States east of the Mississippi. The DRC in general and the conflict areas in particular are rich in farming land and natural resources. Coffee beans, potatoes, tomatoes, yams, and leeks are among the many crops that grow well in the cool temperatures and fertile soil of the eastern highlands, where many of the refugees originally lived. The land is rich in diamonds, gold, copper, cobalt, and zinc, as well as in coltan, used in cell phones and other electronic items, and cassiterite, used in food packaging.
Yet very little of this wealth has benefited the people. The DRC has few roads and railways, and its health and education systems are in ruins. “Instead,” notes the BBC, “its natural riches have attracted adventurers, warlords, corrupt governments, and unscrupulous corporations, and divided the population into competing ethnic groups.” With a population of roughly 70 million people, the DRC is ethnically diverse, with about 250 ethnic groups speaking 700 different languages and dialects. The population is largely Christian but also includes Muslims, followers of traditional African beliefs, and Kambuangists—members of a native Congolese Christian sect.
Over the past 12 years, nearly 11,000 Congolese refugees have been resettled in the United States, in more than 220 cities in 45 states. Texas has received the greatest number, with Houston hosting the single largest concentration of Congolese. Other top-receiving states are Kentucky, Arizona, New York, and Colorado. In preparation for the arrival of additional Congolese, U.S. resettlement partners at the federal, state, and local levels have held discussions about the population’s likely needs and how those needs might be met. To deepen understanding of the potential issues that new arrivals may face, the Cultural Orientation Resource Center at CAL conducted interviews in February 2013 with a number of resettlement agency staff, service providers, community members, and refugees.5 Additional information was derived from local affiliate responses to surveys on Congolese resettlement conducted by the national resettlement agencies, as well as from information provided by two consulting reviewers.