Refugees find peace in America

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In 1972, thousands of families fled the small central African country of Burundi after government troops responded to a sectarian rebellion by massacring thousands of civilians.

Nkeshimana Josephat's parents were among the families that left the country because of genocidal warfare in 1972. Just a baby at the time he left Burundi, Josephat spent the next 24 years in refugee camps in Congo - then another 12 years in Tanzania. After extensive background screenings and biometric checks performed first by the U.N. refugee agency, and then the U.S. government, Josephat, his wife and four children flew to the United States April 2, 2008.

"It's a miracle," said Josephat. "I didn't know where to go" while in the camp.

Josephat and dozens of other migrants and refugees gathered for a small celebration in Burke Hall at the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington June 21 in honor of World Refugee Day. Hosted by Catholic Charities' Office of Migration and Refugee Services, the annual event aims to educate the community about the plight of refugees and honor their success in America. Refugees shared their stories, ate traditional foods and watched a Bollywood-style dance performance.

"We see all of the sad things happening on the news every day and for today … we decided to make it a real celebration," said Patricia Maloof, Migration and Refugee Services director.

Migration and Refugee Services has assisted more than 30,000 individuals, including 23,000 refugees, since it was founded four decades ago. When Josephat arrived in the country, the office helped pay for his housing and food for four months, he said.

He now works full-time landscaping, rides his bike to work, is a pastor with the Free Methodist Church and said he hopes to start working to obtain his GED soon.

His relatively newfound stability is all the more poignant because of the ongoing migrant and refugee crisis. At the end of 2015, there were 65.3 million people forcibly displaced worldwide, according to the U.N. refugee agency. Josephat's native country, Burundi, is struggling again following a constitutional crisis and militia violence. Since last year, more than 250,000 people have fled Burundi, most traveling at night through forests to avoid militias that hunt down defectors, according to the U.N. refugee agency. If they make it across the border to Tanzania - as Josephat's family did in the 1970s - they arrive at camps that are overcrowded and short on food.

Life in America is peaceful, but not without its challenges, Josephat said.

"When we arrived here I (felt) pretty good," he said. "But it was very hard, difficult because we started a new life … I didn't have anyone, any family here. Catholic Charities helped teach me."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016