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Persevering Through The Pandemic: How A Refugee Family Built Community In Greensboro

Courtesy of Prince Mushunju
Prince Mushunju and his wife Laurette came to the U.S. in late 2015. Since then they've had three children, Prophet, Prefna and Shaddai and are leaders in the refugee community in Greensboro.

Prince Mushunju ran away to save his life when he was only 19. Before that, he had fond memories growing up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He lived a normal life, hanging out with his friends and spending time on his family farm with his parents.

Then the Second Congo War started and disrupted Mushunju’s life. He left his friends and family fleeing the war that killed more than five million people and displaced millions more.

"If I turn back I'll be killed, so I have to go,” he said. “I didn't know that I'm going to certain places, because I was just running away."

It took Mushunju one week of walking to flee from his village and finally reach safety in Uganda, a place he called home for the next 12 years. He lived in a refugee camp for three years, but life there wasn’t much better.

"No education, no health assistance,” he said. “I saw a woman giving birth, without assistance. That's what the experience is like (as a) refugee. There is no medication when you get sick. It was too much."

He ended up running away from the refugee camp as well, saying that he might as well have stayed in Congo because of the terrible conditions.

Courtesy of Prince Mushunju
Prince Mushunju and his wife worship at their church, El-Shaddai Vision Church, in Greensboro. They are leaders in the refugee community.

Mushunju took odd jobs around the city of Kampala and eventually became a youth pastor.

He met his future wife Laurette, who sang in the choir. Shortly after they were married in 2015, Mushunju received notice that he could begin the process to come to the U.S.

Then Laurette became pregnant with their first child.

"I was about 30 weeks pregnant when they told us that you're gonna travel,” she said. “We cried actually that night."

They arrived in the U.S. in late 2015 and landed in New York. They had no idea where they’d end up until someone informed them their next stop was Greensboro.

Since their arrival they’ve had three children, and Mushunju is now the pastor of El-Shaddai Vision Church in Greensboro.

Mushunju and his wife are leaders in the Triad's refugee community. When the entire family caught COVID-19 in May, that community rallied around them, leaving them food and drinks on their door step.

However, the virus affected their community at every level.

"Even if they test positive, they could quarantine for one week, two weeks and have to go back to jobs because the majority of refugees are working in chicken factories whereby if you miss job, the company will be down for a while,” Mushunju said. “No matter how the COVID-19 affected all of us in the community, still 70% are still going to work. Thirty percent who are jobless, didn't receive unemployment. So we had to work as a community, so that you can share what you have."

The vaccine rollout presented new problems for Mushunju.

"We have a situation where we put our ministry at a risk to preach about the vaccine, because some members in the community believe that the vaccine is the devil,” he said. “We're supposed to get our vaccine - our first dose of the vaccine last week - but we're fearing if we do it, everybody will run away from us.”

As if catching COVID-19 and the vaccination rollout wasn’t enough, Mushunju said the pandemic has only made immigration issues worse.

Before leaving Uganda, Mushunju was reunited with the parents he thought were dead. It turns out they were alive and sought refuge in Uganda, and they’re trying to get to the U.S. as well.

But the current federal cap on refugees makes that difficult. The Trump administration set this year’s cap at a historic low: only allowing 15,000 refugees into the U.S.

“The pandemic was just like another kind of jab at the program, but really, that [presidential determination] in and of itself has really slowed down the process,” said Megan Shepard, director of the Church World Service in Greensboro.

Mushunju agrees. Through a DNA test, he must prove that his mother and father are his biological parents, but the pandemic is slowing down that process.

"I did a DNA [test] here at Cone Health so they can send it to Africa,” he said. “I've been calling to follow up. They say, ‘Hey, nobody's going there [to Africa] right now, because of COVID-19. So call us back in August.’"

Shepard said aside from hoping and waiting, all they can do is continue to put pressure on the Biden administration.

"There are so many families in this situation, the biggest implication for that, I would say, really has been the policies at the federal level,” she said. “We really just want to continue to urge Biden to sign the new presidential determination, because then, more people could come."

Despite everything happening, Mushunju remains grateful.

“We're trying to live a life that would be a benefit for this country because we believe that God has opened a door for us,” he said. “Welcoming refugees, helping refugees would be something that I'll recommend to everybody.”

Naomi Prioleau joined WUNC in January 2017.
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