When you meet the Mufutas, they will regale you with kindness.
They will welcome you up the stairs to their second-floor apartment in a sprawling North Charleston complex. The air inside is stiflingly warm and still, so they will explain the air conditioner is broken. The living room is sparsely decorated but fully furnished — a table here, a loveseat there, a floor lamp, a coffee table, a television turned on with the audio on mute.
You want to know their story. It is one they have told many times.
To officials at the United Nations. To the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. To volunteers for Lutheran Services Carolinas. More recently, to journalists in a country fraught with fear and distrust of people like them: Refugees. Citizens of no land. Upended by war, they have lived their whole lives on the edge of hope and despair, until now.
Their memories never wander too far. Bakemayi Mufuta is haunted by the specters of his uncle, murdered, and his sisters, raped. He was 7 years old when his father carried him on his back from the Democratic Republic of Congo to the Zambian border. His wife, Rose, was 15 or 16 when soldiers lit her family's house on fire and killed her adoptive mother's daughter in tribal retribution. Congo was no longer safe for her family, either.
Bakemayi is 30 now and lanky with a close-shaven beard and a bountiful smile. Rose is 22 and wears her hair in tight, crimson-hued twists. The Mufutas and their two daughters landed at Charleston International Airport at 10:17 p.m. Jan. 26 — one day before President Donald Trump halted the U.S. refugee admissions program with the stroke of his pen.
For now, the president's order has blocked for four months the resettlement of 261 refugees in South Carolina through Lutheran Services Carolinas, the state's largest refugee resettlement agency. Since 1979, Lutheran Services Carolinas has resettled more than 11,000 refugees in North and South Carolina. But in the wake of the president's ban, their resettlement work has come to a standstill. A family of seven from Congo was scheduled to travel to the U.S. on Feb. 15. Their flight was canceled and they returned to a refugee camp.
'Suffering. It was too much'
For their first night in the U.S., the Mufutas stayed with Vanessa Gongora, a volunteer for Lutheran Services Carolinas. Gongora and a bevy of volunteers are helping the Mufutas adjust to their new lives. When they arrived, Gongora remembers how they marveled at her home's running water and later, how they gawked at Wal-Mart Supercenter's aisles of every size and shape of food. The variety of tomato-based condiments seemed endless — ketchup, salsa, marinara and pizza sauce. Gongora explained them all.
One month ago, the Mufutas were living in a small mud-mortared hut with a grass-thatched roof in a refugee camp in Zambia. Their source of water was a hand pump. Usually, they ate one meal a day — nshima, a thick, hot paste of maize flour and water. And Bakemayi did back-breaking work repairing and installing water pumps for $36 a month.
About life in the camp, "you have no right to move, to do any business," Bakemayi says. "Suffering. It was too much."
Bakemayi, a Pentecostal pastor at the camp, found solace in his Bible, one of the few possessions he carried overseas. He flips through crinkled and yellowed pages until he finds it, outlined in blue ballpoint pen. This is Bakemayi's scripture, Isaiah 53:2-5:
"It was the will of the LORD that his servant should grow like a plant taking root in dry ground. He had no dignity or beauty to make us take notice of him, nothing that would draw us to him ... But he endured the suffering that should have been ours, the pain that we should have borne ..."
These words reminded Bakemayi his suffering was not in vain.
'We are happy'
Three-year-old Georgina is wide-eyed and shy with strangers, but only at first. She sits on top of the dining table, mashing nshima between her fingers over a plate of dried fish and mushrooms. Her older sister, Promise, 6, studies her parents' old photographs of the camp. On the carpet is a Lisa Frank coloring book full of scribbles. The room where they share a full-sized bed is awash in donated dolls, toys and books.
Shortly after Rose arrived at the camp, she and Bakemay fell in love and within months they were married. But their lives and, later, those of their children were still in peril on the Zambian border, which foreigners from Congo would cross to terrorize refugees in the camp. In 2013, Bakemayi embarked on the long process of resettling to a third country.
A letter from the U.S. government came in August, informing the Mufutas that they were the lucky ones. Four months later, on Jan. 25, they boarded a six-hour flight from Zambia to Dubai. From there, a 15-hour flight to Chicago and a two-hour flight to Charleston. At Gongora's house, Bakemayi stayed up all night because he wanted to see America in the morning. When the sun hit the horizon, Bakemayi peaked out the window. He opened the front door and stepped outside to a quiet street and a row of houses.
Americans, he discovered, are friendly people. The food is plentiful. There are lots of jobs. Rose already has an interview lined up with a bakery. Bakemayi is strong. He says he will do anything for work. They have already found their new church. Soon they will learn how to use the bus system. The girls will enroll in school. Their near-fluent English will improve.
"We are happy," Bakemayi says.
While Bakemayi prepares dinner and the children watch TV, Rose reads Proverbs 4:23: "Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life."
In the pages of Scripture, Rose tries to forget, though her memories still flood back. They miss their friends stuck in Zambia, the unlucky ones, with no hope and no future.
"We are praying," Rose says, "that God can touch the president's heart."