CW: Mention of war and torture
In 2019, more than 2,000 refugees called Richmond home, according to ReEstablish Richmond, a nonprofit that connects refugees and recent immigrants to life-building tools and resources. Emigrating from countries across the world – Sudan, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and many others – the refugees look to ReEstablish Richmond to help them strengthen their integration into the community for a more empowering experience.
The resettled neighbors in our community help sensitize us to issues both far away and close to home. Their voices matter and add value to the greater community. Antoinette Murekatete is just one of the multitude of refugees who brings a wealth of experience and new perspectives to our community. She carries an experience that is not uncommon but a story that is uniquely hers as she helps shape the Richmond refugee community.
Driven out by war; a refugee’s story
Murekatete was born and raised in Congo and at 17 she was forced to move to Rwanda because of the war.
“People were getting tortured and killed in our presence every day in 1995,” Murekatete said. “Then, on one fateful night, it was our turn to be tortured.”
Murekatete recalls that it was a Tuesday night when she and her family heard a knock on the door. Awaken from sleep, one of Murekatete’s brothers answered the door. Greeted by a familiar face, he was unaware that the house was surrounded by men with guns and machetes. They hit her brother over the head with a ceramic bowl and made their way into the house, demanding money.
Murekatete was forced to show them where her parents were sleeping. The gunmen hit and threatened her parents, and even after her father gave them some, they tore apart the house insisting there must be more. Murekatete and her family were able to escape the house one by one. Only her dad was unable to escape: the men had stabbed him in the back multiple times. Murekatete and her family hid in different homes of their neighbors, eventually meeting up in one place where they waited until morning to find their dad.
The next morning, Murekatete and her family returned home to find their belongings were taken and everything else destroyed. Her dad was not there, and they assumed he had been killed.
Fortunately, a family friend and well-respected veteran had been walking home that night and saw the group of men. He hid in the bushes and, as the gunmen and Murekatete’s dad approached him, he jumped out and convinced them to release her dad. The friend was able to get Murekatete’s dad to the clinic and have him treated. He returned home late that afternoon.
Murekatete and her family cooked and ate food in their house and hid in the bushes every night for a week until they knew it was safe to sleep in the house. A few weeks later, they were forced out of their home for good.
“The Congolese troops protected us in the camp but didn’t stop the people who were now occupying our home,” Murakatete said. “We were able to leave the Congo and went to Rwanda to stay in a refugee camp.”
Murekatete and her family stayed there until American agencies working in Rwanda arranged for them to go to America. It was time for them to leave and Murakatete’s family arrived in the U.S. in June 2001.
Beginning a new journey and rising to challenges
Murekatete and her family moved to Salt Lake City. After arriving in Utah, Muraketete and her family were responsible for obtaining jobs despite the language barrier and access to transportation.
“It was rough when we first came,” Murekatete recalled. “Back home, we couldn’t afford a car, so everywhere we went, we walked. But here, you have to walk hours to get where you need to go.”
On top of that, Murekatete didn’t speak any English, and when she took a job working in a nursing home, she had trouble communicating.
“It was so hard for me to communicate, especially when I had to answer a question at work and get in trouble because I didn’t know what they said. It was frustrating,” Murekatete said.
Murekatete took ESL classes and after three months, she was feeling more confident in conversations. Little did she know, her lessons would allow her to help others.
Helping others through shared experiences
Eventually, Murekatete, her husband and their only daughter at the time moved to Virginia – first to Roanoke, then to Richmond. This is where her journey with ReEstablish Richmond begins.
When she was in Utah, Murekatete had the help of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) but in Virginia, she realized she could help ReEstablish Richmond. After meeting executive director, Kate Ayers, she began volunteering with the nonprofit as an interpreter.
“It makes me feel so happy to help because I’ve been there,” Murekatete explained. “I know how hard it was with me as a refugee, and I put myself in their shoes.”
Murekatete often found herself answering phone calls and driving over to houses to help translate. She found community among her newest neighbors, believing it was helpful to be connected to so many people from her country. She was able to provide resources and support to those who may be overwhelmed with trauma or assimilation.
“When refugees get help with things, some people feel like they shouldn’t be here at all because they are taking away what belongs to THEM,” said Murekatete. “That’s just one thing that gets me [laughing]. We are not here because we want to be. We are glad we are here. We are glad we are alive. But we didn’t come here for all that some people think. Refugees were living happily before the war.”
Murekatete is now one of ReEstablish Richmond’s Refugee Voices and Ambassadors speakers, where she shares her story and how she got to where she is today. With the pandemic, these speaker events have shifted to a virtual setting, but the story still plays a crucial role in building relationships and understanding between refugees and the community.
“I think it makes people understand that we can’t take everything for granted,” Murekatete explained. “You don’t know what can happen tomorrow. People need to understand what other people went through for them to see that the freedom you have can end any time.”
If you would like to know more about ReEstablish Richmond’s mission and work, you can visit its website or follow the nonprofit on Facebook and Instagram. You can request educational programming for your group or organization, including the Refugee Voices and Ambassadors program here.