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Alex Mutabazi and his family came to Tennessee to escape the violence in Central Africa. He has since started a church to help other refugees. Photo by John Partipilo | Tennessee Lookout

Settled into new homes, refugees in U.S. say they are working for a better life for all

Between October and May, the U.S. admitted 3,250 refugees, according to Department of State data.


Violence, persecution and wars amid a global pandemic added to the growing number of displaced persons around the world last year.

The United Nations reports that 11.2 million people were displaced from their homelands in 2020, bringing the total number of displaced persons in the world to 82.4 million.

Of those forced to flee their homes, 1.4 million had to leave their country. According to the U.N., Turkey hosted the largest number of refugees in 2020, taking in just under 4 million people, the majority coming from Syria. Colombia was next, taking in more than 1.7 million displaced Venezuelans. Germany, Pakistan and Uganda also are in the top five hosting countries, with each resettling more than a million people.

The United States was far below those numbers, resettling 11,814 refugees last year.

President Joe Biden, who campaigned on promises of facilitating immigration and increasing admissions for refugees, recently, increased admissions from 15,000 to 62,500. Immigrant rights activists say more needs to be done.

Between October and May, the U.S. admitted 3,250 refugees, according to Department of State data.

For World Refugee Day, reporters at States Newsroom spoke to several refugees from across the country who agreed to tell their stories.

Petronille Kabanga, 52, Democratic Republic of the Congo
By Laura Gómez | Arizona Mirror

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Petronille Kabanga, a Phoenix resident, poses for a photo inside her store selling handmade crafts and decorations in north Phoenix on Friday, June 18, 2021. Kabanga fled Congo in 2003 and is one of the thousands of refugees who now call Arizona home. Photo by Laura Gómez | Arizona Mirror

Petronille Kabanga’s husband worked as a journalist in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In 2003, he took a picture of a protest where the military killed nearly 100 people, Kabanga said. He was warned to not publish the photos because they contradicted the government’s account that a few people were killed. But he published the photos.

Soldiers then came to their home, and took her husband. Kabanga went into hiding for a few days with their six children. But they weren’t safe anywhere. Her husband was released and came back with a message.

“Run away, just go,” he was told. The family fled their home and country.

For 13 years, they lived in a refugee camp in Zimbabwe. They had their seventh child there.

“Living in the camp is not easy. I didn’t know how to cook with the firewood, that was my first experience, go and do the garden, go fetch water, it was not easy,” Kabanga said.

In May 2016, the family resettled in Arizona. Her children, now ages 25 through 15, adapted well to school, play sports and are going to college. She wants to teach other refugees to value school and encourage their children to get an education, before starting to work.

“Maybe I’ll do a workshop with the parents to teach them the value of the school. It is for the benefit of their children and their parents,” she said.

The couple recently opened an African imports store in north Phoenix where they sell handmade furniture, jewelry boxes made from wood, leather baskets and natural fiber decorations made in Congo. They also sell cooking ingredients and frozen food.

Kabanga’s also aching to help young women and girls in the Kasai region where she’s from. The province is rich in minerals like diamonds, but also known for the armed groups that terrorize the area. The region, and the country, is experiencing food insecurity.

“People are suffering,” Kabanga said. “It’s shameful …. my country, there’s too many things. I want to help women with the school, maybe we can buy a sewing machine for them.”

Jaime Enrique Ramirez Corredor, 65, Colombia
By Laura Gómez | Arizona Mirror

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Jaime Enrique Ramirez Corredor, 65, is a refugee from Colombia forced to leave because right-wing paramilitary members threatened him. He looks at news websites from his laptop in a west Phoenix apartment where he lives. Photo by Laura Gómez | Arizona Mirror

Jaime Enrique Ramirez Corredor was forced to leave Colombia in 2014. His business in a rural community of sugar cane growers was targeted by right-wing paramilitaries who threatened to burn down his house. He fled to neighboring Ecuador. Four years ago, Ramirez arrived in Arizona as a refugee.

“It’s been seven years since I don’t see my family and my kids,” Ramirez said in Spanish. “And it hurts. Colombia hurts.”

Last year, out of the 58 refugees who arrived in Arizona, three of them were from Colombia, the state Department of Economic Security reported.

In 2018, Ramirez worked in the tortilla-making section of El Super, a grocery store. A sack of flour he was lifting fell and he injured his right arm. He couldn’t work, and lost his income. Ramirez lived out of his car for six months.

Since arriving in Arizona, he’s found it difficult to feel like he belongs.

“I feel very alone here,” he said.

Ramirez now works informally as a private driver. Recently, he’s been moved to tears after watching videos on his phone of police brutally responding to massive anti-government protests that began on April 28 in the South American country of 50 million people.

“We, the older generation, were incapable of handing over a better country to our young people because of cowardice,” Ramirez said.

Ramirez has attended gatherings from Colombians living in Arizona to bring awareness about the social upheaval that’s resulted in 68 deaths, most allegedly at the hands of police.

He said he feels sad and powerless watching the deadly repression of protests. But he also speaks up against any government that keeps its people in poverty, in hunger.

“I’ve never been someone who stays silent about injustices,” Ramirez said. “The crimes committed (abroad) by the U.S. government throughout the years are many. It is curious that the government that produces the most refugees is the U.S., and here is where refugees arrive from different places like Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Link to similar refugee stories here:

Settled into new homes, refugees in U.S. say they are working for a better life for all - Idaho Capital Sun