Identifying information such as family names and faces in photographs have been omitted by request.
Gentille is expecting another niece or nephew early next year. Her older sister is about five months pregnant, as of October, and Gentille hopes they can be together in the same city by then. For now, her sister is still in Rwanda waiting for her flight information to the United States.
The story of their separation–like that of many refugees, asylum seekers, and displaced people— is one that was deeply impacted by policy changes and chance.
Their family is originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Gentille, now 29, left with her family when she was six years old and journeyed to Rwanda. “We grew up there,” she says of Rwanda. She graduated high school there and began teaching seventh grade. During college, she began working in social services with people with disabilities. She obtained an accounting degree and secured a finance position with a nongovernmental organization (NGO) in Rwanda in 2016.
Gentille has been in Kentucky since August of this year. After her first few months of important appointments for her and her one-year-old son Asher and attending the Family Center for ESL, she is starting her job search.
“I used to do office work, but here it’s very hard for new immigrants,” Gentille says. “All the jobs are very physically demanding, and for me, it’s not the type of job I want.” Gentille has some physical limitations and she has her sights set on re-entering education, finance, or social services.
“When you heard that you are going to the U.S., it’s like, Oh, now, I am relieved. I am going to have a better life.”
She and her son aren’t alone in Kentucky. They flew here with her younger brother, her twin sister — also younger, she adds with a smile — and her niece. Another brother and nephew arrived shortly afterwards. Their sister, cousin, and mother were also set to arrive soon afterwards, too.
In the summer, before any of them had the opportunity to travel, Gentille’s mother passed away suddenly. She checked herself into a hospital in July and died days later after a heart attack.
Gentille had to board a plane for the United States less than a month after her mother’s death. She explained that her sister and cousin were scheduled for a later flight because they had previously requested to travel with her mother due to her age and health. When Gentille left Rwanda, she thought she would see them in Kentucky soon. Their flight scheduled for September was changed to October, however, which brought them into the next federal fiscal year. In a new program year, the administration must release a signed Presidential Determination stating how many refugees will be admitted. Without a signature, no refugees could arrive in the new program year. Gentille’s sister and cousin were among the many people waiting. The administration announced the cap of 18,000 refugees, a historical low and a reduction from the 30,000 refugee cap last year, but the determination was not signed until November 1.
By then, the family’s medical clearances expired. They have still not been cleared or rebooked for new travel. Along with other refugee families in similar situations, they will have to wait to renew their medical and security clearances before receiving new travel information.
“This kind of situation of delaying travel for refugees, it’s putting pressure on people who are here who got separated from their families,” Gentille says. “Also, it’s not something easy for those refugees who were planning to come.”
Her sister had been teaching third grade in the camp but had to stop due to increasing health concerns. In addition to needing medical care as a pregnant woman, Gentille’s sister needs surgery. She has a stent in her heart that was placed there seven years ago; it was supposed to be replaced after five years, but she says the refugee camp does not have access to the specialist needed to perform that operation.
“For my family and many more who are there for 23 years, life has been terrible,” Gentille says. “When you heard that you are going to the U.S., it’s like, Oh, now, I am relieved. I am going to have a better life.”
While her family waits, Gentille stays in touch with them and shares updates on how everyone is adjusting to life in Louisville.
The ESL classes she had been attending were held at KRM’s Family Center, one block away from the main Louisville office. While she attended class, her son Asher was in one of the age-specific early childhood rooms. “He’s always good with other kids,” Gentille says, with Asher playing at her feet. Now, she has transitioned from attending ESL classes as a student to volunteering at the Family Center while she looks for work.
“There is a guy here — we came the same day, the same flight—who was expecting his family to come by the next week. And they didn’t come. He’s alone.”
Gentille speaks four languages: English, Kinyarwanda, French, and a little Swahili. She has been able to put these skills and her educational background to good use at the Family Center, because many of the current students are Congolese women. Their spoken and written languages often depend on where they fled after leaving the DRC.
“Many from Rwanda, they speak Kinyarwanda,” Gentille explains. “Some in Tanzania speak Swahili and one of the Tanzanian local languages. Some from Burundi speak Kirundi, which is kind of similar to Kinyarwanda. Some from Uganda, they speak Swahili. But the best thing is that almost all know some Swahili, so we can communicate a little bit.”
Gentille and her siblings are all adjusting to a new home and their separation from their sister and cousin — and the death of their mother.
Her younger brother lives with them. In a nearby apartment are her sister and niece; her brother and nephew live a bit farther away. Gentille explains that she has another brother in Rwanda who is waiting to reunite with his wife and two young children, ages four and seven, who live in Chicago. He was also caught up in a travel delay.
“We need to advocate for them to see if these politicians maybe can mercy on them,” she says. “Not every family can manage it. Let’s say there is maybe a single kid who has been here and his whole family is back in Rwanda, and then they don’t even know if they will come. It creates separation. There is a guy here — we came the same day, the same flight—who was expecting his family to come by the next week. And they didn’t come. He’s alone. It’s not easy.”
Gentille’s family in Rwanda tries to persevere, and she tries to also look toward their future: finding work, supporting her son. As she nurses Asher, she explains the meaning behind a baby blanket nestled around him. The words “Baby dream” are embroidered on the fabric.
“You don’t know exactly what is his future,” Gentille says. “He has a dream. As a parent, you hope that he has a good dream . . . that one day will come true.”