In Romania, Congolese refugee does as the Romanians do

News Stories, 10 May 2013

© UNHCR/A.Anca
Jean-Louis Kialoungou with his daughter Letitia in Romania, his home since the 1990s.

BUCHAREST, Romania, May 10 (UNHCR) Jean-Louis Kialoungou's love affair with Romania began before he even arrived here in the mid-1990s, and over the years the Congolese refugee has become more Romanian than most Romanians.

As Romania prepared for general elections last December, for example, he seemed more concerned than many voters about the fate of his adoptive country. "I asked my colleagues and friends: what do you think about the candidates? Most have no clue!" said Jean Louis, complaining in fluent Romanian about local apathy when it comes to politics.

"For how long are we Romanians going to be treated as inferior to other European nations? What have they got that we haven't?" he asked with a passion that belied not only his African roots but also the fact that, as a refugee, he has no right to vote. He says he is too busy to apply.

Jean-Louis came to Romania from the Republic of Congo 16 years ago, when he was 34. Now as well as strong views on Romanian politics he has a stable job, a family and a house, and he has retained the sparkle in his eye and youthful and energetic manner that have helped him overcome adversity.

"I live here, I have a child and I want to see changes for the better," said Jean-Louis, who in 1996 fled a country that was wracked by political turmoil and sliding toward a brief civil war, which erupted in 1997.

He landed at Bucharest airport in October 1996 with his Romanian girlfriend Daniela, whom he met in his homeland and would later marry. They had tickets to fly on to Paris, but planned to first spend a couple of months with Daniela's mother in Romania.

"I don't know what happened. I fell in love with this place and can't really explain it to this day," said Jean-Louis, who now lives in a house with a big garden in Chitila a satellite town of Bucharest together with his wife and their 14-year-old daughter, Letitzia.

He works at the BRD Bank in Bucharest, administering money transfers. At home he loves to spend time in his garden, where he cultivates vegetables and grows fruit trees and grapes.

The neighbours in Chitila all know Jean-Louis for being the only "black guy" in the neighbourhood and for his friendly manner; they have even introduced him to tzuica, a traditional home-made Romanian brandy.

"It was easy for me to integrate in Romanian society and I'm proud of that," said Jean-Louis. "When you go somewhere you are the one who has to adapt, you must fight to be accepted, not the other way around."

But a recent episode in central Bucharest, in which a workman shouted racist abuse as Jean-Louis walked past while speaking on his mobile phone, was a reminder that life is still not always easy in overwhelmingly white Romania.

"He thought I was scared of him because he was in a group, but I interrupted my call and stopped to asked him: 'Excuse me, sir. Have I bothered you in any way? Why would you address me that way? You are here doing your job and I'm on my way to mine'," Jean-Louis recalled.

Courage and a strong will have helped Jean-Louis make a home from home in Romania. He also believes that his education in French literature and communication studies in the Republic of Congo helps him relate well to other people.

"You also have to know what you want to do with your life," he noted, claiming that being a refugee in Romania was not necessarily harder than in other countries where there are more opportunities and work is better paid.

"People are good here and the country has potential," he said, "But there are moments, like [the racial abuse] yesterday for instance, when I really miss Africa."

The homesickness struck him while listening to Congolese music sent to him by a friend. "Yesterday, I felt like I was in Congo. If someone had said to me, come on, let's go back there, then I would have left just like that."

In the 21 years since Romania acceded to the UN Refugee Convention, more than 3,550 people have been granted international protection. While Romanian law protects refugees, many struggle to access their rights and rebuild a life in Romania. Last year, received some 2,500 asylum-seekers.

By Andreea Anca in Bucharest, Romania




UNHCR country pages

The Most Important Thing: Central African Republic Refugees

Over the past year, the UN refugee agency has run a series of photosets on its website by American photographer Brian Sokol focusing on the possessions that refugees take with them when they are forced to flee from their homes. We started last August with Sudanese refugees in South Sudan and have since covered refugees from Syria and Mali.

Last year, Sokol visited the northern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to ask refugees from the Central African Republic (CAR) the same question: What is the most important thing you brought with you? He again received interesting answers from a wide range of people from rural and urban areas of CAR, where inter-communal violence has spiralled out of control. They are featured here and include a sandal that helped an old woman, a pair of crutches used by a man to reach safety and a boy's photo of his slain father. Another boy named the family members who escaped to safety with him as his most important possession - many would feel the same.

Tens of thousands of people have fled from CAR to neighbouring countries since December 2012, including 60,000 into northern DRC. Some 30,000 of them live in four refugee camps set up by UNHCR and the others are hosted by local families. For the majority, there was no time to pack before escaping. They fled extreme violence and chaos and arrived exhausted and traumatized in the DRC. They could take only the most essential and lightest belongings. The photos here were taken at Batanga Transit Centre, Boyabo Refugee Camp and Libenge village.

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More than 100,000 Congolese refugees have crossed the Oubangui River in search of safety in neighbouring Republic of the Congo since inter-ethnic violence erupted in their home areas late last year. They fled from Equateur province in the north-west of Democratic Republic of the Congo after Enyele militiamen launched deadly assaults in October on ethnic Munzayas over fishing and farming rights in the Dongo area. The tensions have spread to other parts of the province.

The majority of the displaced are camping in public buildings and some 100 sites along a 600-kilometre stretch of the Oubangui River, including with host communities. The massive influx is stretching the meagre resources of the impoverished and remote region. Help is urgently needed for both the refugees and the host communities.

The relief operation is logistically complex and expensive because the region can only be reached by plane or boat. However, few boats are available and most are in need of repair. Fuel is expensive and difficult to procure.

Congo's river refugees

Out of Harm's Way in Romania

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Most people forced to flee their homes are escaping from violence or persecution, but some find themselves still in danger after arriving at their destination. UNHCR uses the centre in Romania to bring such people out of harm's way until they can be resettled.

The Emergency Transit Centre (ETC) in Timisoara was opened in 2008. Another one will be formally opened in Humenné, Slovakia, within the coming weeks. The ETC provides shelter and respite for up to six months, during which time the evacuees can prepare for a new life overseas. They can attend language courses and cultural orientation classes.

Out of Harm's Way in Romania

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Uganda: New Camp, New Arrivals

Recent fighting in eastern Congo has seen thousands of civilians flee to a new camp, Bubukwanga, in neighboring Uganda.
Refugees in Republic of CongoPlay video

Refugees in Republic of Congo

UNHCR struggles to reach isolated groups of refugees who fled inter-ethnic violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. More than 100,000 are sheltering in neighbouring Republic of Congo.
Refugees in Republic of CongoPlay video

Refugees in Republic of Congo

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