Page 4 of 7
Ntahondereye and Nyandwi are Hutu. They also fled Burundi during the 1972 war and then spent much of their lives in refugee camps. While living in the Congo they met Marenga's family. They had no idea then that they would rely on Marenga's charity years later in Kansas City.
The couple says when they were taken to the JVS office in September, a staff member told them that the organization was financially strapped and unable to offer them much assistance. Nyandwi pulls out cooking pots that are flaked with rust. Ntahondereye has trouble seeing but says JVS staff told him that purchasing eyeglasses would be his responsibility. His family has no money left. They've exhausted the three checks supplied by JVS, amounting to $249. Now, they say, they're surviving on food stamps.
The mention of the family's caseworker makes Nyandwi scoff loudly and clap her hands together as if brushing dirt off her palms. They go weeks without any contact from JVS staff, she says. They travel on foot even to medical appointments, despite the cold. They went to the JVS office, but there wasn't a Swahili speaker there to translate their concerns.
By coincidence, though, Marenga was there, filing his green-card application.
Marenga's easy smile and warm laugh dissolve at the mention of Ntahondereye and Nyandwi. Their situation, he says with his eyes hardening, was nothing like his. They were isolated and struggling for basic necessities. "They didn't have any food," he says. "I personally went there and saw myself that they didn't have food in the house."
"I used to cook and take to them part of the food that was meant for my family," Josephine Misago adds. "I divided it up to keep them surviving."
A few weeks later, Marenga learned that a new family — Nibitanga's — had arrived on Prospect, and he went to visit. Marenga says he found Nibitanga's children listless and coiled in hunger.
"Nobody is creating a connection between us and the office," Marenga says of his fellow refugees. "There is total darkness at JVS."
Foster's eyes well with tears when she hears the concerns of the Burundian families. Between sighs, her voice drops to a near whisper. She admits that none of the caseworkers speak Swahili, the language most common to African immigrants. Only one JVS employee can translate.
Weitkamp says the constant flux of refugees in and out of apartments makes it difficult to keep up with utilities, such as heat and electricity.
Weitkamp and Foster insist that JVS has followed the letter of its federal contract, providing all necessary services. But both acknowledge that the organization is struggling to keep up. In 2009, JVS accepted 492 refugees, up from 400 in 2008. The $1.3 million it received from Washington, D.C., they say, isn't nearly enough to cover even basic necessities such as rent and utilities.
"The economics can be reduced to pretty cold math," Weitkamp says.
"We're already in the hole before they send them here," Foster adds.
Weitkamp offers a rough breakdown of the money for Ntahondereye and Nyandwi. The feds gave them $1,350, he says. Two months' rent gobbled up $900; $200 went to household items; and another $249 was given directly to the clients in three small checks. Then the money was gone.
Wills, the State Department spokeswoman, says federal funds aren't supposed to be the sole source of support and explains that refugee resettlement is a public-private partnership. "We figure they will also use that [money] for fundraising. At least that's traditionally been the case. But what's happened recently, with the recession, is that the flaws in the system have really been highlighted. We recognize that a lot of refugees are having a lot of trouble."