From Kinshasa to Boise via Cameroon: Patrick’s Story
Patrick Bakwa was born in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a country devastated by long-running civil wars and oppressive regimes, beginning with the Belgian colonization of a largely untouched Congo basin in the 19th century. Decades of colonial rule left the country with a frayed identity. Deep rifts between different political factions during the independence movement, which ended with the seizure of power by Joseph-Desire Mobutu in 1965, heralded a turbulent beginning for the newly born DRC.
Since 1996, an estimated 5.4 million people have died and another 3.4 million have been displaced due to brutal fighting between ruling elites and rebel militia. Though rich in natural resources, centuries of political instability, corruption and exploitation have left the country’s infrastructure feeble and its development stunted. These overlapping factors have created conditions that are ripe for human rights abuses, especially toward women and children.
Bakwa and his brother were raised by their mother amid strife and uncertainty until he was 10 years old. But even that semblance of a normal childhood came to a screeching halt when she embarked on a boat journey with the children to join their father who was already in Cameroon.
Bakwa’s mother did not survive the trip. When they reached land, the two children found their father to be a reluctant guardian. With their most basic needs neglected until their father died of AIDS several years later, Patrick became the default head of the household. Given these circumstances, the brothers were granted refugee status and sent to live with family acquaintances in Boise, Idaho.
Even the new start, far away from conflict and on a different continent, did not lead to a safe environment for the already traumatized siblings. They suffered abuse at the hands of their foster family. Often locked out of their new home, the brothers took to hiding blankets in their lockers at school and sleeping in parks at night until a Boise couple they met at church adopted them.
Patrick, now 22, works for a construction company. He shares a one-bedroom apartment with his younger brother Derrick, Derrick’s girlfriend and their infant twins. He is finally settling into a predictable routine in the confines of his new community, while overcoming stereotypes and hidden racism.
“We didn’t grow up with our dad. When he was around we did not have his affection. Being young and in a country where I did not know anybody, I started washing dishes at restaurants [in Cameroon] just to take care of my brother. I was only 10 years old. We slept on the floor in the kitchen. There were mice everywhere, sometimes stepping on us in our sleep. We never got enough food. We barely had clothes or shoes. Yet, I, as the older brother, had to step up to the plate.
“Someone told us to go [to the U.N. Refugee Agency] to get some documents and tell them about our story and that those guys there would take care of us. We did the interview with the American immigration office and waited for a month. We received a call saying that we qualified. I remember exactly when I found out. I felt so blessed at that time. I just kept thanking God. I had always prayed that we could be in a better place, have an education and grow up as other kids in the world do.
“We took English classes and classes on American life – how people live, how they communicate – to prepare us for our new lives. They sent us to the hospital to be vaccinated against diseases.
“I had of course never heard about Boise. In Africa, when they show America, they only show Las Vegas, big cities and rich people. They don’t show homeless people sleeping on the streets. I pictured large houses, big cars – the American Dream. Just live a good life and travel everywhere and do whatever your heart’s telling you to do. Of course, that wasn’t the case. They gave us a map and said, ‘OK, you guys are going to Boise.’
“Even here my life was tough. First, when I came here, I was eating out of a trash can, sleeping outside, because we didn’t have somebody who could give us love and shelter. It was really hard. I was surprised to see people sleeping outside in America and some others begging for money.
“We’d sleep outside even when it was cold, even when it was snowing. Sometimes we were so hungry we’d go to through the neighbor’s trash. We’d see some yogurt that was already spoiled but we’d say, ‘If we’re gonna die because of this, we’re gonna die.’ At night we’d just lay the blankets underneath the trees and sleep, and in the morning we’d go to school. We did this for two years, sleeping in Ann Morrison Park, and eating through the help of food banks. We didn’t have clothes. I would beg for money and go to the used store and buy some for the both of us.
“It was life-changing when Steve and Lori took us in. They gave us love. It was hard in the beginning as we had lost trust in people. They took us to restaurants and baseball games. But the images from my past were recurring. Sometimes I would go to sleep and cry without even knowing. But they would always reassure me by saying, ‘Don’t worry, we’re here, we’re your new parents now and we’ll help you move forward.’
“I don’t have to worry about my past anymore. I am moving forward. But the thing that always takes me back to my past is Mother’s Day. I don’t know where they buried her body, I was never able to send her flowers. It reminds me also of my dad and how he abused us. When I see people on the streets, I am reminded that was my life at some point.
“In some places here, they do treat me differently. At my workplace, I’m the only black person. Even at school people were making fun of me saying, ‘You should go back to Africa chasing monkeys.’ Most people [here] think that all blacks are dangerous. All blacks are killers, drug dealers. Black men have a bad image in general. They put us all together, whether African or African-American.
“Everybody here [in the United States] has a different, separate life. We don’t know each other. We don’t know each other’s background. If I tell my story and people read about me, and someone says, ‘This is a good thing,’ maybe other people will also tell their stories, what they’ve been through, how their life was.”
This series has been produced in collaboration with Stronger Shines the Light Inside – a photography project that tells the collective story of resettled refugees in Idaho. We will present a new individual account every day this week in the lead up to World Refugee Day on June 20.