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The long road from bloody Congo conflict to Bensalem and college

One believes it was luck that brought him to America. The other credits God.

Zola Makanda chats about his experiences in the United States since leaving Congo at Manor College in Jenkintown.
Zola Makanda chats about his experiences in the United States since leaving Congo at Manor College in Jenkintown.Read more(WILLIAM THOMAS CAIN / For The Philadelphia Inquirer)

When Zola Makanda recounts his path from childhood in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to his freshman year at Manor College in Jenkintown, it sounds almost liturgical: "After Congo, then Central African Republic. After Central African Republic, then Cameroon. After Cameroon, then Nigeria. After Nigeria, Benin. Then Niger. Then Algeria."

Makanda, who was raised by an uncle from the time he was a baby and doesn't know what happened to his parents, spent months fleeing rebel armies and bloody conflict. He followed strangers, begged in the streets, slept in bus stations, and crossed a desert on foot, until he finally scrambled into Morocco.

It was nighttime. There were armed guards at the border. He was 16, an orphan with nothing but a few pieces of clothing, a well-worn Bible, and a prayer.

Patrick Mujambere followed a similar route: In 2013, his home in Congo — a village without roads, electricity, or indoor plumbing — was attacked, and Mujambere, then 15, fled with his uncle. The two were captured by rebel forces; a friend of Mujambere's uncle helped him escape. "He gave me some money and showed me the road: 'If you follow this, you will be in Uganda.'"

Eventually Mujambere reached Kenya, where he scrounged for odd jobs, such as selling mobile phones on the street, and lived with three other boys from Congo. There, someone told him about a program that might be able to help.

In the fiscal year ending in September 2016, the United States became home to nearly 85,000 refugees, from Syria and Myanmar, Iraq, Somalia, and — the greatest number — from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. President Trump wants to cap that number at 45,000.

A tiny fraction of those refugees, 203 people under the age of 18, were resettled by the federal government's Unaccompanied Refugee Minors (URM) program. Some went to long-term foster care in Phoenix or Fargo, Salt Lake City or Miami. A handful landed at Romero House, a group home in Bensalem run by Bethany Christian Services and Catholic Social Services.

At Romero House, named for the slain Salvadoran archbishop and social-justice activist Oscar Romero, up to 12 youths can receive case management and English tutoring, help with identification, driver's licenses and green cards (refugee minors may apply after a year), medical and dental appointments, employment advice, and counseling, if needed. The goal is for them to live independently by age 21.

"The first thing we do when they arrive to the house," says Ana Palacios, supervisor of the URM program for Bethany, "I tell them: 'You are safe here. We feel blessed that you are here.' "

Mujambere believes it was luck that brought him to America. Makanda credits God.

Makanda had never been on a plane before when he boarded the first of two flights — Morocco to France, France to New York — that would bring him to his new home. As a child, he'd studied math and government in a Christian school; he played soccer seven days a week. He thought the U.S. was a harsh place, like the movies he'd seen: guns, racism, violence.

In Morocco, the Catholic Church helped supply Makanda with food and clothing. "One day, they asked me: 'Would you like to be with this program? They take care of kids who don't have parents.' I didn't know I was a refugee. They asked, 'What do you want to do in life?' I said, 'I want to go to school and play soccer.' "

He was frightened to leave — in his year and a half in Morocco, Makanda had made friends and attended a makeshift school — but the U.N. staff who interviewed him multiple times offered reassurance: "They said: 'There is a group home that will take care of you. You don't have to be afraid anymore.' " Still, Makanda cried the day he left.

At Romero House, there were case managers who spoke English, refugees from El Salvador and Honduras who teased each other in Spanish. Two other boys from Congo spoke Swahili. Makanda's language was French. His first English sentence was, "I want something to eat."

Mujambere also remembers the day — Dec. 1, 2015 — when he arrived at Romero House. He spoke a little English, enough to test into the Level 2 English Language Development class at Bensalem High School.

Susan Cantwell, a math teacher there, remembers Mujambere as a perfectionist who quickly advanced to honors-level algebra 2 and geometry. She urged him to join the math team. And as Mujambere's English improved, "we'd have these philosophical discussions that would go around for hours: politics, religion, marriage, you name it."

Mujambere didn't miss the violence and poverty of Congo. But he longed for his family — a father who had disappeared, a mother and sisters who'd sought refuge in Kenya. He struggled with the cultural dissonance between his home country and America.

"In my country, you have to walk, you don't have a car, so making friends is easy. But here, you can't just go visit your neighbor," he says. Everything was different: rap instead of gospel music, shorts instead of more modest clothing, fast food in place of hot, home-cooked lunches.

Both young men landed jobs at the Golden Corral in Bensalem; Mujambere has burn scars on his forearms from long hours sizzling chicken in hot oil. But he saved enough to buy a 2003 Pontiac. Meantime, he studied precalculus, geography, physics, American history and British literature — a struggle, because he had to look up both vocabulary words and the words used to define them.

After just a year and a half, he was ready to graduate. So was Makanda. In June, the two joined a Bensalem class of 400 in royal blue robes and tasseled caps. They had a jubilant cheering squad: a dozen staff and residents from Romero House, along with math teacher Cantwell and ELD teacher Kathy Tevelson, who calls all her students "my kids."

Palacios credits both young men's inner resources for their success. "They have a strength, a resilience, a capacity. They are so thankful for what we provide," she says. A study of 600 young refugees, published this year in Child Development, showed that for many, friendship and community gave them the strength to endure.

"Sometimes, I cannot imagine how I made it," says Mujambere, now a freshman at Cabrini University in Radnor, where he landed a $12,000 scholarship. "I think it was like a dream world." He'd like to be a family doctor or a public defender.

Makanda imagines becoming a nurse, traveling internationally to help people in need. He says the most important thing his journey taught him is "how to show love to people you don't know."

For the moment, he's on the verge of midterms, studying from Social Problems and the Quality of Life in the Manor College cafeteria before heading outside on a brisk fall day. On the field, he's just one more kid who's been playing soccer practically since he could walk, joining some teammates for a passing drill, using everything he has — head, knees, feet — to keep the ball in the air.