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"We want a better life." 2 brothers who came to the U.S. from Tanzania, where they lived as refugees, share their story

Gabriel and Jet'aime Bolenge at KSMU for an interview in March 2024
Michele Skalicky
Gabriel and Jet'aime Bolenge at KSMU for an interview in March 2024

Gabriel and Jet'aime Bolenge came to Springfield in 2016 with their mom, dad and two other brothers.

The Democratic Republic of Congo on the African Continent has been in conflict since the mid 1990s, leaving around six million people dead.

The Council on Foreign Relations on its website said, “the DRC is home to nearly 7 million people who have been internally displaced due to the threat of violence and atrocities, extreme poverty, and mining expansion.” It said around a million are seeking refuge outside the Congo.

It was during the First Congo War, in the wake of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, that the Bolenge Family – mom, dad and two boys -- flew to Tanzania to escape the conflict. Two more boys would eventually be born to the family.

Gabriel Bolenge was just six months old. His brother, Jet’aime, was born in Tanzania in a refugee camp in Kigoma.

Jet’aime remembers the story his father told him.

"When they arrive in Tanzania, you know, there wasn't any house to live in, so they was living in tent back then,” he said.

After several years, they were able to build a house, he said, which gave them a safe place to live and sleep.

Even though the pair grew up in Tanzania, they heard their father tell stories of the Congo, and they missed home. Jet’aime was able to visit his home country for the first time last year.

"I was very excited because that was my first time seeing my country," he said. "It's like you (are) born somewhere else, and you've never been back to your original country, and it's your first time. You feel like you're going to cry, you know?"

He and his brothers still have aunties and uncles in the Congo, Jet’aime said.

The family is now living in Springfield, Missouri after landing on U.S. soil in New York City on September 1, 2016. Gabriel and Jet’aime said their family knew when they arrived in Tanzania that they’d eventually be resettled in another country.

Gabriel answers in Swahili
Jet'aime translates, "So there is an immigration there in Tanzania. The U.S.A. Immigration in Tanzania, so they have to take those people who have been in the camp for very long time, and they don't have hope to go back to their country."

After they were chosen to go to America. Jet’aime said they had to go through an interview process.

"Anytime they come to interview us," he said, "we would repeat in saying that we want a better life different from this one, 'cause the life there wasn't really good. Sleeping in the tents and eating one-day meals, It's really hard."

And finally they were on their way to a better life. But it was difficult at first. They didn’t speak English, they didn’t know anyone, and the food was much different than what they were used to.

The International Institute of Southwest Missouri provided support to the Bolenge Family when they first arrived in Springfield.

Jet’aime and his younger brother enrolled at Central High School.

"You don't know anything, you know, you just keep quiet in school," he said. "You can't even respond for anybody, you know?"

But the two younger Bolenges are now able to speak English better than their brothers, who had attended school in Tanzania, and they often translate for their siblings.

Today, life is good, according to the brothers. The family owns their home. Gabriel opened a retail store last year. Forever DL and GB African Store at Division and National sells African clothing and food items. He said he wanted to serve the Congolese community here who, like his family, often had to travel to Kansas City for what they needed. But his customer base has surprised him.

Gabriel answers in Swahili
Jet'aime translates, "When I opened this store, and my focus and my goals was to serve only the — I thought it was only to serve the African community. But now, I am very impressed because I have seen a lot of different types of people, like people from here, you know, they come to our store and purchase stuff, and I didn't expect that at the beginning. I thought only the African community will be the one who's going to come to — only to buy stuff. But right now we get all those people from American, Spanish — Mexicans and, you know, Chinese. Yeah, yeah, we get all those people in."

Gabriel and Jet'aime's parents are 62 and 72 and continue to work at Aramark Uniform Services. Jet’aime is a U.S. citizen now – so is his little brother. Refugees and immigrants must live in the U.S. legally for five years before they can apply for citizenship. The rest of the family intends to start the naturalization process soon, but Jet’aime said his parents are reluctant to halt their Congolese citizenship.

And the brothers plan to expand their store soon.

Gabriel answers in Swahili
Jet'aime translates, "When we compare what life we used to live in Tanzania, and we don't want that life to happen in our generation to come. So we are working very hard as we started the African store now, hope it's going to get bigger than this."

Jet’aime said he hopes to become an electrician to help local Congolese families as well as those in his home country. And he’s started a tax preparation business and his helping the Congolese community in Springfield prepare their taxes.

"We want to help focus and help our own community so they cannot face their difficult we face when we grew up," he said, "even here, too."


Michele Skalicky has worked at KSMU since the station occupied the old white house at National and Grand. She enjoys working on both the announcing side and in news and has been the recipient of statewide and national awards for news reporting. She likes to tell stories that make a difference. Michele enjoys outdoor activities, including hiking, camping and leisurely kayaking.