When Nicole Tshibangu first came to the United States, she felt lonely and isolated. Despite the ability of Kentucky Refugee Ministries to help with the physical needs of her family, she says, “there was a time when I wanted to go back. I felt isolated and it was difficult.” She says that she desired to be a part of her community, but taking care of her three kids while her husband worked made this challenging.
Fortunately, Nicole began working as an interpreter for KRM within a few months of being in the U.S., able to begin so early because of her relatively pre-developed English skills. Her excellent work as an interpreter led her to be hired on as a receptionist, a role in which her coworkers say she “answers phone calls, schedules appointments for the immigration attorney, makes the general schedule, helps with donations, whenever someone comes in here she greets them,” and “holds the office together.” Nicole, confronted with affirmations of her many functions in the office will simply respond with a smile and say humbly, “I am an interpreter.”
Nicole’s multifaceted nature is as evident in her past as it is her present. When she was a teenager her parents fled the Eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo with Nicole and her six siblings. They had felt constantly in danger. “I remember, in the night, men walking in the streets with machetes and sticks, putting red cloths on their heads, singing ‘Going to get every Kasai’—Our tribe was Kasai. You couldn’t go out or they would get you.” The Kasai tribe were native to the northern region of the Congo and were the subject of fierce vitriol and prejudice in Nicole’s home region, in part due to a perception that Kasai migrants took jobs away from locals. Her grandparents had moved from the north to the east decades before.
Having moved to the southern region of the Congo, Nicole’s family found it as taxed and torn by conflict as their home, but at least there no conflict centered on their tribe in particular. There Nicole remained for years until she was nearly twenty-four. After reestablishing their lives without any money, something surprising happened.
“Then came this other person who said, ‘We saw your fiancé in Namibia,’ And I decided to follow him there.” The prospect of being with her fiancé surpassed the appeal of remaining in the conflict-torn Congo, and she began the treacherous journey to Namibia, eventually crossing the border secretly to get to a police station in a city there where she filed for refugee status. After being taken to the refugee camp, she was reunited with her fiancé and they were shortly thereafter married.
Life was not easy in the camps, though, and so Nicole and her husband left the camp and entered the city. “It was technically illegal, but the government had mostly stopped caring.” Even then, she and her husband benefitted greatly from a childcare worker who provided Nicole with a job, gave her children the beginnings of an education, and sheltered the young couple from zealous officers. All the while, she was learning English, the national language of Namibia.
While trying to scratch out a living in an inhospitable city, though, Nicole and her husband had an important application pending. Though it took six years of processing and information gathering, they were cleared by the US State Department and United Nations High Commission for Refugees for resettlement to the United States.
“I came here with my husband and three children,” she says. She came with little else, except a willingness to work and learn, and her English. KRM was able to take care of her family’s needs, and yet Nicole’s isolation crept in on her. It was in part her Namibian-acquired English skills that allowed her to integrate into Lexington life and the KRM office, where she is now more than just integrated–she is essential.