This text was compiled from an interview with Aline Binyungu, the founder and director of Women’s Refugee Care. The interview was conducted on 5 December 2017 by Aliosha Bielenberg and Jeanelle Wheeler, both students at Brown University. The interview was conducted in French and has been translated, condensed, and edited for clarity.
Aline Binyungu at her home in Providence. Photo credit: Andrew Robbin.
In your opinion, what are the roles of men and women in the Congolese community? Are these different between Rhode Island and the DRC? As the director of the WRC, what is your vision of woman’s role?
I’m not sure if I fully understood your question, but I will try to respond. Since the time of our ancestors, women have been the most venerable throughout the world. I myself am a woman. I grew up in a family where my mother didn’t have much value in the eyes of my father. Women were always forgotten and never had a seat at the table. They weren’t always consulted for great decisions in my culture – Congolese culture, African culture. I had the chance to study. It was really a chance – most of the women we have here in Rhode Island, they don’t even know how to write their name. This makes my heart heavy [me fait mal au coeur], it makes me want to cry. If you don’t know how to read and write, you can’t really work. This morning I was at the pharmacy with a woman to help her get her medicine. Someone who can’t even read her name won’t be able even to find her insurance [attirance] card among a stack of documents. She has to give me all these documents just so I can find her card. Sometimes it’s even difficult for her to remember her address or her telephone number.
So, we work with women here because they were marginalized in our country, in our customs. Once they come here they remain vulnerable. Even though we are in the US – and I know that American women are free and they have their role in society. When I talk to my children at home – my boys – I sense that they don’t really respect women, their colleagues. Because they are still figuring out how things work here, what role women play in society. They are learning what women can really do. And I like that – it’s good for a society that wants to progress. When you respect a woman, you won’t hit her. You won’t fight with her. When you know the wife of your neighbor – you know that she is capable and educated – you can’t marginalize her and, as you say here in the US, “put [her] down.”
In the interview earlier, you spoke about the differences you’ve observed here in Rhode Island. You talked specifically about how your daughters don’t have the same respect in the culture here as they do in the culture in the Congo.
That’s a bit different. The status of women in the Congo is linked to culture. She isn’t really considered – people don’t consult her and respect her. When our daughters come here – in the DRC, in a public gathering of both genders, women normally don’t speak, because it’s men that can speak and make decisions. Even if it concerns you – for example, a marriage of my daughter – I can’t really negotiate and talk about it. So in our culture we talk about dowries. So I might think that my daughter is really beautiful and educated and so she’s worth two cows. But I can’t say that because I don’t have the right to speak. Instead, I talk to my husband and he speaks for me. I really can’t speak myself – if I do, the others will say I am cursed [maudite]!
So when you’re in a public gathering and a woman wants to go by, she has to make a gesture of respect. Like this [hunching her back and lowering her gaze]. On the other hand, here in the US I never see a young woman showing respect like that in a public gathering. If you’re a young woman and your father is speaking, you must lower your head and you must not look into his eyes. You must be gentle [douce]. Even if you have something to ask or explain, you wait until he’s done speaking and then you say “please” and “I thought it might be…” On the other hand, here, even a girl of 16 feels comfortable going up to her father, looking him in the eyes, and saying “No, dad, no! That’s not fair! We’re in the US now – I’m free, I don’t have to do the dishes, because I have to study.” They have this ease to say whatever. The girl might say to her dad “I have a classmate at school and I’m going to go on a sleepover with her so we can be better friends.” In the Congo [chez nous] you just can’t do that.
What do you think of the role of religion in the community and in your work? What about the church and priests specifically, both here and in the DRC?
Religion really has a very positive impact. In the Congo we consider a priest and a pastor a real emissary of God. Because of the war and many difficulties that we experienced in the DRC, people prayed a lot, all the time. Myself, I prayed very, very much, especially when I was growing up, I was very close to God. I saw that my future would be in the hands of God. Only with God’s blessing would my future become more certain and clear. There were very few opportunities in my country to succeed in life. God had to open the door for me and give my parents the means to help me. There was sorcery, the kind of thing you can’t understand. I needed God to protect me, especially in the refugee camps. Everyone there prayed to get “resettlement” [in English] – here. There were so many cases and to be selected was incredibly complicated. Getting officials to understand why I couldn’t return to the Congo was so tough, only God could make it happen. When I was young I fasted for three days to pray to God and ask him to have pity on me and my family. You can only imagine what it was like.
Here, it’s different. We have enough food. When people arrive they get EBT cards [an electronic system for distributing welfare benefits] so they don’t go hungry. Some people have the minimum necessary – enough food, some kind of job – and so they don’t give a damn [je m’en fous]. They say they don’t have the time and so give up on God. Another problem is that it’s difficult to adapt to churches here – largely because of the language, but also sometimes because they’re not really hospitable. If you go to church, sometimes no-one will take the time to greet you – not even to smile and say hello. That really discourages people. After even two times like that they say “I’ll just stay at home.” So we really need our churches here, or at least for the American churches to let us pray with them.
Do you think the church and the priests have an influence on the role of women?
They have a very important role – they’re crucial. If you’re a priest, people explain their problems to you – even women do. You’ll be the only one who really understands what’s going on, so you’ll be uniquely suited to lobby and advocate for certain things. In the Congo [chez nous], a priest is like a prince, like a king, because there’s so many Christians – at a mass there’s a thousand or five hundred people. So when they speak there – “Please, men, what’s your problem? Love your wives, don’t fight amongst yourselves, that is the will of God”! – they will understand for sure. When we began our work in the Congo we started by going by the churches. We convinced the priests and then they disseminated the message to the church-going people. They said “Listen to these people! Listen to WRC! They will help you and will help your family!” When international organizations came, we took them to the priest to explain what they wanted to do with the people. And that really had a positive impact.
It shocks me because here it’s different! When I talk to a pastor to spread a message and talk to people, some of them say “No, that’s not my job! Nobody’s going to listen to me!” When I talk to them, for example, about someone with a mental health problem, they say “No, we’ll go look for social services.” With us [chez nous], the mental health problems were all up to the pastor – he spoke with the person, prayed with them, and they got better quickly.
What are your dreams for you and your family, but also for Women’s Refugee Care? In an ideal future, what role would WRC play?
As for our family, I want it to be a model family. A model Congolese family in which the man and the woman can speak together, have a dialogue, and show the families we serve that it’s possible for a man to respect and love his wife while living truthfully. That’s the first role.
The second role is to help families breathe and relax when they arrive in the US. Have some joy, because it’s possible. Of course, with the contributions and support of the goodwill of American volunteers, we would like to work on advocacy and showing the problems of refugees have here. We want to try to find some solutions little by little. Our work is long and arduous, but we really want to help the Congolese families that we serve.
Do you hope that WRC could have a global impact and help communities back in Congo as well?
Yes, we would like all the families from the African Great Lakes countries – Rwanda, Congo, and Burundi – to be able to breathe and say, “Yes! We are in the United States! Thank you, Lord. You gave us our country where we feel good. Thank you, Lord. We forgot all the pain we have lived, all the sorrow.”w
This is what is difficult. We would like to have a model of an African family that is part of the Congolese and African culture yet has succeeded in adjusting to the American culture without trouble. A family that has mastered and embraced the new culture without fighting it too much.
In your dreams, what role would WRC have in relation to Congo? Would you want to affect change there?
In my dreams, you see that WRC has links to what is happening in Congo. We have found that women who are here now have a great need. These women are from the Congo, our home. And now they are here. There are so many difficulties. We have to work together, hand in hand, to confront life here. My dream, our dream, is – with God’s help, because we really hope that God will help us to get better – and with the help of people like you, and doctors, and politicians, our dream is to eventually go to the Congo. There we hope someday to make things better. Because it’s always the same situation – the country has difficulties with government. But for now that’s not going to change. First we need to make sure there’s fewer difficulties here. I need to make sure I’m doing well here and help refugees coming here. Then, once that’s done, we’ll think together about what we can do to help the Congo. My dream would be to take a team of Americans and go to the Congo – once I have American citizenship. They would be able to see the problems there and make things better. That’s my greatest dream, with the grace of God. C’est ça.