How one refugee’s story of organizing holds lessons for all of us
By Amanda Mancenido, Communities of Opportunity
Floribert Mubalama knows firsthand that it can be hard to find your footing when you transition to life in America as a refugee or immigrant. I met Mubalama through the Congolese Integration Network (CIN), an organization part of the growing group of partners supported by Communities of Opportunity to strengthen the connections that cultural groups have to their communities.
Mubalama courageously shared his story to help affirm that isolation is a common experience for many refugees and immigrants and that becoming involved with cultural community organizations can break that isolation and help people thrive emotionally and economically.
In 2006, Mubalama was forced to flee his home country of the Democratic Republic of the Congo due to violence. He settled in a refugee camp in Malawi where, at times, he struggled to remain positive. But the kindness of refugees who shared their food and shelter, regardless of cultural background or nationality, gave him hope.
Eight years later, Mubalama and his family relocated to SeaTac where they struggled to find adequate housing, living wage jobs, and community support. He realized his fellow Congolese refugees and immigrants had not established a sense of belonging to the community, even if they had lived here for many years.
“They still feel like they can be killed or that other people don’t like them,” he said. “They still identify themselves as foreigners.”
Mubalama says this fear and isolation can affect all aspects of a person’s life. People in isolation lack the support and resources needed to thrive, and he sees these effects play out in his community every day.
“Instability is a big issue for us. People are moving two or three times a year. They’re pushed more and more south, away from the resources they need to support themselves…and heal from their trauma.”
Building a network
Inspired by the compassion and selflessness of his fellow refugees in Malawi, Mubalama became determined to address these issues and create a sense of belonging for Congolese families in King County.
So he did what was most natural to him -- he connected with people. He went door to door introducing himself to community members, reached out to legislative officers to raise awareness about their health needs, and organized a community gathering where over 120 Congolese community members and 20 King County service providers came to learn from one another.
Through these efforts, Mubalama came to understand the needs and strengths of his community.
What he heard
Survivors of sexual violence in his community advocated for more culturally informed health care, and many families shared their struggles in search of economic opportunity, housing stability, and community connection.
This feedback became the framework for Mubalama’s organizing work. With support from Global to Local, Mubalama officially founded CIN in 2015 and began creating community-driven programming aimed at addressing instability and isolation in the Congolese community.
CIN’s first program, Congolese Housing First, provides activities that build self-sufficiency and capacity, including language classes, employment workshops, and support groups. The program also provides financial resources for those engaged in these activities. Mubalama says the early successes from this program helped build trust among community members.
CIN is building a community for the more than 8000 Congolese refugees and immigrants in Washington State. Programs through CIN include youth development, housing assistance and advocacy for disabled and senior communities, and school readiness programs for parents and their young children. CIN also recently developed a Congolese Health Board that brings together Congolese health professionals and other stakeholders to inform the community about pertinent public health issues.
As CIN continues to expand, Mubalama knows there is still a lot of work ahead to improve the community’s health and well-being. But he’s confident that with compassion and commitment, CIN can help Congolese families grow and prosper in King County.