CEDAR RAPIDS — At Pastor Sylvain M’zuza’s church, congregants hail from Kenya, Zambia, Ghana, Liberia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the United States.
The congregation, which meets in borrowed space at Peace Christian Reformed Church in Cedar Rapids, is a snapshot of a wider wave of immigrants to Cedar Rapids and Iowa City from several African countries.
For about the past decade, people from Sudan and South Sudan, Rwanda, Burundi, the Congo, Liberia and other countries have formed communities in the Corridor. Just as Germans, Irish, Scandinavians, Czech and other groups did before them, they’re arriving in Eastern Iowa in search of a better life, often fleeing conflict and economic hardship.
Their children are growing up as Americans.
Exact numbers of which nationalities are immigrating to Iowa are hard to come by. What can be documented is why people chose Iowa, and how their communities grow.
The Congolese experience in Eastern Iowa is one example.
When M’zuza first moved to Cedar Rapids in 2004, he said he knew of fewer than 50 Congolese people in the Corridor. Today, he estimates there are more than 1,000.
Both numbers were echoed by other local Congolese leaders.
“The community is growing very, very quickly,” M’zuza added.
For most, Iowa was not their first stop in this country. In fiscal year 2013 alone, the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement brought more than 2,500 Congolese from refugee camps in Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania and Uganda to cities around the United States.
Thousands more came in previous years, and that trend is expected to continue.
What’s not tracked is how many of the new residents then move to other cities and states.
Families often decide to come to Iowa after the government settles them in places such as New York City or Los Angeles because Iowa has available jobs, good schools and low crime rates, M’zuza and others said.
When he first arrived in the United States, M’zuza tried living in Pittsburgh, but decided Cedar Rapids, which he had visited, would be a better place for his family. They joined him from the Congo three years later.
He and others said the handful of Congolese who moved here in the early 2000s told their extended family and friends about the state, who then told their family and friends, and so on. Other immigrant communities have grown the same way.
“When we explain to them how nice Cedar Rapids is, they decide to come here to start a new life,” M’zuza said.
John Wilken, Iowa bureau chief for Refugee Services, a division of the Iowa Department of Human Services, said he was surprised by the numbers Congolese community leaders report in the Corridor. He was only aware of fewer than 10 Congolese refugees being resettled in the area in the last 18 months, he said.
His office works with not-for-profit agencies, which provide services such as housing assistance to newly arrived refugees. Once people move from the city in which they’re originally resettled, most of those services don’t follow them.
His office also does not typically track asylum seekers or other immigrants. As with refugees, asylum seekers often are fleeing persecution or conflict, but their cases are processed after they arrive in the United States.
“There is no agency that’s assigned responsibility for those clients,” Wilken said. “Depending on what part of the state they move into, there may be very limited services.”
So community members have stepped in to help each other.
Immigrants helping immigrants
Boumedien Kasha is executive director of the CongoReform Association, a group trying to formalize the informal but effective Congolese support network that has sprung up in the Corridor.
When new arrivals move to town, he said, they often stay with a more established Congolese family while they get settled. Association members help with translation, aid newcomers in finding housing, make it to doctor appointments, sign up for English language classes and find employment.
A major employer for local East Africans is the Whirlpool plant in Amana. That’s where Kasha worked after he first arrived in Iowa in 2003.
He was a lawyer in the Congo, but his credentials did not transfer to the United States, and he needed time to learn English — an experience shared by many community members.
After taking English and financial services classes at Kirkwood Community College, he finally is on the way to picking his law career back up — he just started classes at the University of Iowa’s law school. He also is working part time at the UI’s legal clinic — the office that first helped him win his asylum case 10 years ago.
“Now the community is growing up, and we want to provide help to others,” he said. “We want to help Congolese, Africans and other immigrants in need become self-reliant, independent and integrated.”
Wake Up for Your Rights, a Cedar Rapids-based organization of immigrants, will screen a 15-minute documentary by group founder Esaie Toingar on the struggles refugees face. There will be time for questions and discussion with Toingar and other local immigrants after the film.
Where: Prairiewoods Franciscan Spirituality Center, 120 E. Boyson Road, Hiawatha
When: 6:30 p.m. Tuesday
Cost: Free, donations accepted
You can help
The CongoReform Association is looking for community partners. To get involved or learn more about the group, call (319) 651-2917 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.