Three thousand miles. That’s how far Josephine walked through the jungle to escape the bloody civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo to reach South Africa.
Three thousand miles. Three months in the jungle. By herself. No shoes, no clothes besides the ones on her back, no food. Sleeping on the ground. Jungle animals she could hear but not see, their calls echoing in the darkness. Snakes everywhere. Hard to close her eyes when danger surrounded her, yet sleep had to come if she was to continue her journey. No fire, no pack, just walking, walking, walking.
The story Josephine tells is one that’s mostly unknown and surprising to the case workers at Women of the World. They describe her as sassy and sweet. Fierce and affectionate. They talk about how she fills the office with laughter and smiles every time she visits. Sitting in the WoW offices, looking stylish in her flowered shirt and bold jewelry, it’s hard to imagine what it took for her to get here.
She pulls up her shirt sleeves and pant legs to show the deep, crisscrossed scars she still carries from her time in the jungle. Finding “medicine” to put on her “owies” while traveling in the jungle was difficult, she explains. She started walking in 2000. She left her children, her family. Everybody thought she had died.
The Democratic Republic of Congo has been marked by violence, unrest, and instability since its independence from Belgium in 1960. The government of longtime President and de facto dictator Mobutu Sese Seko was marked by corruption, greed, and civil unrest. The Congo, then known as Zaire, became even more volatile with the influx of Rwandan refugees and Hutu militias following the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Mobutu’s government, weakened by persistent fighting between opposition groups, was easily toppled by Laurent Kabila’s coalition forces in 1997. The Congo soon became embroiled in Africa’s Great War (1998-2003), a conflict that claimed an estimated 6 million lives from fighting and malnutrition. Ongoing fighting between up to 70 armed groups in the years since has displaced millions inside the Congo and forced millions more to flee.
Before she left, Josephine lived in a village cut off by war. “Fighting everywhere,” she explains. “People die, people die, people die,” she repeats to herself as she stares into the distance. Armed militias would arrive in villages, attacking rival groups and civilians alike. Extreme violence, widespread rape, murders, and executions…all commonplace during the Great War.
Disease and malnutrition followed. “Our family didn’t eat pork, but if you didn’t, you would die, so we did,” says Josephine. Members of her family fell ill. There were no jobs, no money.
Josephine stayed in South Africa for many years, then made her way to Beboto, Chad, where she received help from the Catholic Church. She started looking for her family in Kituku, Congo. Once she located her them, she called to let them know she was okay.
Her father answered the phone and gave her the awful news: her mother had fallen sick and died in 2007. One of her four children had died. Her daughter Julie, a toddler when she left, was now in her early teens.
“My mommy, she died.” Josephine begins to cry. She paused to compose herself, but the tears continue to run down her cheeks. “My gut is sad. My mommy died, why my mommy die? Every day my mommy cried because she thought I had died. Why my mommy die?” She wipes her eyes as she speaks, anguish and sorrow spreading slowly across her face. She looks out through the office window, suddenly back in Africa, recalling the long-ago conversation that broke her heart, but not her spirit.
She made plans. She was determined to make a better life for herself and her daughter Julie. She lived in a refugee camp in Chad, applied for asylum, waited one year, and on June 21, 2009, Josephine and her then-fifteen-year-old daughter arrived in Utah.
“Before I come here, I cry every day,” she murmurs. “Then I come here, and they give me a key, and a key for my daughter. I ask, why?” Josephine smiles and begins to laugh. “They open the door and say, here, this is your house! Look, this is your bed. This is your daughter’s bed. Here is food for you.” She shakes her head in disbelief and laughs again. “I could not believe it!”
It took Josephine awhile to adjust to her new home. She had to have operations on her eyes so she could see. Housing is still a challenge; “paying rent is hard for me.” But she has a job at Canyon Rim Care Center caring for the elderly, and she can hop on the bus near her home to go to work or run errands.
Her daughter lives in Rose Park and dreams of being a social worker. “My daughter likes Utah so much!” exclaims Josephine. Julie is attending Salt Lake Community College and working as an interpreter for the International Rescue Committee and the Asian Association. She has two children, a three-year-old and a one-year-old. Josephine enjoys spending time with her grandchildren and often brings them with her when she visits Women of the World’s office.
Josephine’s big smile, infectious laugh, and courageous spirit help her get through the hard times — and there are still hard times for her, even in her new home. She hasn’t seen her family in Africa in ten years. Her father passed away in 2010. Several of her children are still in the Congo, as are two of her sisters. She sends money to them every two weeks. She also has a brother and two sisters living in Canada.
Another sister traveled from Libya to Germany this past January, making the treacherous Mediterranean crossing in winter. “They had to break the ice with a knife,” explains Josephine. “Many people died. She broke one of her eyes and can’t see out of it. She has no papers. But immigration let her into Germany.” During her interview, Josephine pulls out her phone and begins to Facetime with her sister, talking with her about her struggles to get to Germany. It’s not the same as being together, but it’s a connection.
When people back home say to her that America is no good, she shakes her head and says, “America is good. I don’t see bad people, I see good schools, I see people happy for me. I thank God every day for bringing me here, helping my kids, helping my daughter. God is good to me.”
Josephine is determined to remember all that she’s been through. “I read, I forget. I read, I forget. I read, I forget,” she says.
“I do not forget this because I see it; this is my story, so I not forget.”
Neither will we.