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From displacement to new beginnings, a long journey home to the Ozarks.

John Ndahiriwe in his office at the International Institute.
Rich Lawson
John Ndahiriwe in his office at the International Institute.

John Ndahiriwe was a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who immigrated to the Ozarks. He and his family escaped a dire situation to make a new home in the United States.

According to the United Nations, in September of 2023, the world experienced the “highest levels of displacement on record.” Over 114 million people have been forced to relocate due to persecution, conflict, violence or human rights violations. For many decades, the resource-rich Democratic Republic of the Congo has experienced internal armed conflicts, leading many to flee to neighboring countries. At an early age, John Ndahiriwe and his family left his native home of the Congo to avoid being killed. Although his father had been threatened in the past, a warning by neighbors one night that men were actually out murdering people drove them to hide in the bushes as their home was pillaged.

"You gotta go, because you — the whole family will be killed. So we left that time, we was dad took, I don’t know how he left, and there was another people, they took the children — we went separate, my mom went separate, and we was able to go," said John Ndahiriwe. "I remember we spent, it was two months we would go house by house, we would spend time inside the house, sometimes we spent time outside the house, until we was able to find a way to go to Rwanda. So we was able to go."

That was in 1999. His family was separated but managed to regroup in Rwanda at a refugee camp. John said the camp reflected a working city with a functioning infrastructure, including schools, proper housing and, most importantly, safety.

"That's where I did learn that I do have value. I can ask you a question if something is wrong. I'm able to speak when something's not right. That's where I learned that. 'Cause I went there, I was able to start in the fourth grade and I did my high school there. In the refugee camp they provided food, you have a small house you live in," John Ndahiriwe explained. "The main thing it's not whether you can eat but as long as you can live in a place that’s safe. You have school, you have high school, you have secondary school, you will have a health center, and if you get really sick you get transferred to a bigger hospital. Everything you need is there."

In 2009, he and his two brothers started the process of leaving the camp for the United States. Like many others in their situation, immigrating to America is a long and challenging journey that can take years. After numerous interviews and routinely checking the postings on the wall for those who had been accepted, he couldn’t believe he was finally leaving Rwanda.

"Yeah, we started our quest to come in 2009 and we was able to finish the process in 2016. We was the fastest, actually! It was fast," said John Ndahiriwe. "People who started the process, we was in the same case, but they still waiting. That’s how lucky we are."

With luck and persistence, John and his three brothers arrived in New York City in 2016, 17 years after leaving their home in the Congo. They soon realized they had new struggles.

"Language it’s very different and very — English, the accent was really not easy to understand, because back then I couldn’t really to speak to people in English. It was very low," said John Ndahiriwe. "I can say ‘hi, how are you?' but my English wasn’t enough to have a conversation with somebody."

They stayed overnight in New York and arrived in Springfield, Missouri the following day to be dropped off into an unfamiliar environment. Here the three brothers found themselves in an American-style home, and, due to the language barrier, were unable to access simple accommodations.

"So we came in, we have a house. It was a three bedroom. I was — three brothers, It was exciting! A good house. A house here is way, way different then houses back home. So we had to learn how to use the heat, how to use the hot water, because we don’t really have those back there." said John Ndahiriwe. "Maybe some of the rich who live in the city, they do, but we didn’t have. And we also how to learn to use the stove, how to cook, and how to make food. It was a big challenge. It was a big big challenge."

John Ndahiriwe is the Refugee Cash Assistance Coordinator with the International Institute of Southwest Missouri, which helped his family immigrate. The organization offers refugees critical economic and cultural integration services. John plays an important role in easing the transition into the local community. He sometimes comes across false ideas regarding the U.S. and offers advice for newcomers.

"Information, I think, it’s not really accurate. Like when they first come, you know that, ‘oh, in America you will be able to be helped, you will get this and this and this and this’. But the truth is, in America you have to work really really hard," said John Ndahiriwe. "The thing I can...for somebody who just came here in America, I also tell them, because I see them a lot, especially young people, is just that try to...don’t be any trouble."

Since 2016, John met his partner and are raising their four children. He shared the emotions behind his first native-born daughter.

"Yes! That is something (that) happened. And it was a wonderful blessing, and when I looked at her when she was first born I was like, ‘wow, you are American'," said John Ndahiriwe. "The kids all share a different story but, really, I see her everytime. Like, wow, that is something amazing."

Correction: John has two brothers who came to the U.S. with him, not three