When Foibe Nibitanga got a ticket to a new life in the United States, she didn't expect the fear and hunger of the refugee camp to follow her to Kansas City.
The 39-year-old Burundi native leans forward in one of the worn, mismatched chairs in her Prospect Avenue apartment, trying to speak over the squeals and cries of toddlers who, in the absence of toys, play with couch cushions and a set of keys. With her sculpture-smooth skin and bright, searching eyes, she doesn't look like the mother of eight children or a woman who was hunted out of her home and has spent nearly her entire life as a refugee.
When civil war broke out in 1972 between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes in that tiny central African country, Nibitanga was just 2 years old. Her Hutu family was a target of the Tutsis, who exterminated more than 100,000 Hutus during a violent three-month campaign. Like thousands of others, Nibitanga fled and eventually settled in neighboring Tanzania.
Speaking with authority but clutching a purse to her chest, Nibitanga explains that food shortages at the Tanzanian refugee camp meant that her children went hungry nearly every day. Criminal gangs crept into the camp at night, murdering residents in their sleep. To venture out for firewood put women at risk of rape, or worse.
Nibitanga got her family out.
On October 20, with their belongings crammed into plastic-mesh bags, her family arrived in Kansas City. It was after 11 p.m. when their caseworker from Jewish Vocational Service, the local nonprofit on Baltimore Avenue that contracts with the federal government to resettle refugees in Kansas City, Missouri, dropped them off at the shabby brick house on Prospect.
The large apartment had three bedrooms, each with thin blankets covering sturdy cots. Other provisions were few. The only food in the house, Nibitanga says, was bread — a starch that her children couldn't eat. According to the Burundian mother, the family's caseworker from JVS didn't return for several days. By then, they had already showed their bare refrigerator to their landlord and told him with hand gestures that they were hungry. They had also appealed to others in Kansas City's small Burundi community for food because they had no money to purchase it.
A week after they arrived, Nibitanga says, the caseworker handed her a check for $250. The next week, she provided another $250 and a trip to a check-cashing franchise. Then, she says, the money stopped. "It's almost four weeks now, and we've run short of necessities," she says on a chilly mid-November morning. "We've become ashamed of constantly begging for food from other Burundi people."
In her refrigerator, she has an onion and four packages of Kraft cheese slices. Her freezer contains a package of ground beef and a fish with all its scales. In their small bathroom, there's no evidence of shampoo or toothbrushes. Nibitanga's warm smile and polite demeanor are tested by her frustration. It has been nearly a month, and she hasn't received immunizations or medical care. She hasn't been enrolled for food stamps to feed her 10-person family — a social service for which refugees are eligible as soon as they arrive in the United States.
"I try to speak to my caseworker, but she speaks English," Nibitanga says. A family friend translates: "I speak Swahili. We don't connect."
Steve Weitkamp, director of refugee and immigration services for Jewish Vocational Service of Kansas City, disputes some of Nibitanga's story. The Burundi family must have been provided a hot meal upon their arrival, he says. That's standard procedure for all newcomers. Still, he calmly takes out a pad of paper and makes careful notes.