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Unsung Heroes Series: A Refugee Helps New Arrivals Settle In Albany

Lucas Willard

The world continues to debate how to handle the growing international refugee crisis. When refugees do arrive, they are left to tackle the challenges associated with setting up a new life in the United States. They often need help learning English, seeking out government services, or finding a job. One organization operating out of Albany is doing the important work behind the scenes to help migrants find a foothold in their new community. In the fifth part of our winter series on unsung locals, WAMC's Lucas Willard reports on a refugee who is dedicated to helping others.

"My name is Francis Sengabo..."

Francis Sengabo was born and grew up in Rwanda. After graduating from high school he studied economics at the University of Rwanda and ended up working for the International Red Cross distributing food and supplies to those affected by internal conflicts.

"And in 1994 after the airplane for the president was shot down and so the genocide started right away. That's why I flew from Rwanda to Tanzania."

Francis landed in a refugee camp in Tanzania with 400,000 other people. He said in the beginning, there was chaos. He said only those who were strong enough could get food to survive.

"In the beginning, I remember in refugee camp in Tanzania many people died because of not having any...especially people who are vulnerable, they are older people, kids...I can say the first three months it's a horrible, horrible situation."

But after that, he says, things started to turn around.

"If you see the beginning the refugee camp, when it's new, and the end, you can see there's improvement."

Eventually, food and supplies were distributed. Infrastructure got established. Supported by UNICEF, Francis and others helped establish a school for the idle children. He became principal of a middle school.

Between 1994 and 2007 Francis lived in three refugee camps.  He lived among people from Rwanda, Burundi, Congo, Uganda, and Sudan.  He married his wife, who is Congolese, in a refugee camp. They had two children in a camp. He and his family began their emigration process when they were interviewed by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in 2006.

Francis and his wife, two children, and two brothers arrived in Albany in 2007. The city is home to a field office for the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, USCRI, which helps the government relocate migrants.

When he arrived in Albany, it was the first time Francis had seen snow.

"It was in March. It was very, very cold. It was my first time to feel cold like that. And the first question I asked the USCRI agent who came to get me from airport to my house, I say, ‘Tomorrow we need to move to another state where it's not cold.' He said 'You will set up. Don't worry. You will be OK,'" laughed Francis.

A week later, Francis, who did not speak English at the time, tried taking a bus uptown. Without knowing how to pay for a bus ride, he tried giving the driver a $10 bill, but the driver couldn't take it. He was given a ride anyway.

"And of course, I went on the bus for free, I found out, and that was the first signal that in America the community likes to help," said Francis.

That spring, Francis met then-pastor of the Emmaus United Methodist Church in Albany, Reverend Denise Stringer. In French, he asked the pastor to help him learn English. They did so using the bible, and in September of that year, Francis helped the church establish RISSE — Refugees and Immigrants Support Services of Emmaus — to help refugees find housing, jobs, public assistance, and pay bills.   

Today, RISSE serves approximately 125 families each year. Francis, whose title is Operations Director, helps immigrants read their mail, fill out paperwork, and find a job. RISSE provides transportation and teaches English to kids and adults.

RISSE provides services at Albany's St. Vincent de Paul  parish and at Emmaus United Methodist Church. Down the hall from the English classes, Francis is working with Muthana Alkhazrhai.

"I like the job. I like to work with Francis. He's a good boss," laughs Alkhazrhai.

Alkhazrhai worked as a nuclear engineer before he fled Iraq for a refugee camp in Egypt, where he remained for six years until 2012. Today he lives in Albany and works as a driver for RISSE after the program helped him get established in the U.S.

He and Francis today are helping another Iraqi refugee who does not speak English with an application for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Food stamps.

Francis says he relies on volunteers to interpret and often kids in RISSE's after school program will help interpret for their parents. In addition to English and his native Rwandan, Francis speaks French and Swahili. He says he'd like to see government documents available in other languages.

"Because I have seen some refugees lose their benefits because of language issue, but again, the good part is I have seen neighbors, they help them to fill out the forms, and they're eager to learn."

There are some rules RISSE follows when working with refugees. Sexuality, religion and politics are avoided. Only talk about somebody's situation if they want to share it. Francis says some are hesitant to mention their home country.

Francis  says when he first arrived he didn’t want to tell anyone when he needed food, including the church pastor.

"She say, you know, 'Do you have any food?' I say yes. The next day she comes and says ,"Do you have food?' I say yes. She decided to go open the fridge. The fridge was empty. Because we don't like to... in my culture to come in your house, you don't ask 'Do you need food?' Because automatically we say no. But if you offer me food I will eat. So, there's a lot of changes culturally."

It's also important to share a little humor.

"During the summer, they had a celebration in Washington Park. And one day it said 'hot dog, hot dog, hot dog.’ I asked politely, my neighbor, if 'Here, people eat dog?' He said it's a name only! It's a regular food! But until now, I tell people how I did remember when I saw hot dog, I thought it was a real dog."

With the current immigration crisis facing Europe and the Middle East, amid so much political attention focused on immigration, the full extant of how the refugee crisis will affect the U.S. remains to be seen. Francis says every human being in this world needs to help others.

"This is situation in Syria, in Rwanda, in Iraq, can happen in any country. Can happen in any country."

RISSE serves families from more than 25 countries, and Francis says as the program grows, he feels the need to help out more and more, because as he says, they will always have a new client.

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.
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