In her other life, soldiers would come to her African village each week to raid it and take people away.
People taken were reported as “lost” – a euphemism for dead.
Fearing for their lives, Jolie Uwizeye and her two children traveled amid bullets and poisonous snakes to hide in the bush in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“Young men died,” Uwizeye said. “Strong people, important people lost their lives. Children were orphaned because of this. Each day could get worse and worse.”
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Ten years have passed since Uwizeye and her children, Isaac and Debra, fled the Congo to Uganda. They lived seven years as refugees. She applied through the Red Cross for settlement.
The Uwizeyes then came to America.
She had never heard of Wichita.
In this life, her children are now teenagers. She works as a maid at the Drury Plaza Hotel Broadview Wichita. They have been here 18 months.
Next week, the family will begin to build their first house through Wichita Habitat for Humanity.
From Congo to Uganda
Uwizeye grew up in a grass hut in a small village in the Congo. Her father was a minister.
“They are very beautiful houses and are built in a strong way,” she said of the grass huts. “That house could stay for years.”
In 1996, she got married.
But life in the Congo was changing dramatically.
“I left my country because of the war, the civil war that was happening,” she said. “In 1994, the situation worsened, because at that time, we got refugees from Rwanda. They entered the country, and that is when things got spoiled. People started getting lost. Many started to form their own soldier groups, which caused a lot of insecurity.”
Her husband was a teacher and a businessman. They had a small shop. She lived with her husband and his family in a compound.
“We all lived together,” she said. “I was a housewife. I grew up seeing only three professions – one of them was teaching, another was nurse, the other was a soldier.”
Her husband often went to trade in larger cities. When he was away, soldiers would come to the village.
You don’t know how to run, how to hide yourself. If they come to you like that, believe me, that is your end. You will lose your life.
Jolie Uwizeye, who came to Wichita 18 months ago
“You don’t know how to run, how to hide yourself,” she said. “If they come to you like that, believe me, that is your end. You will lose your life.”
In the 10th year of her marriage, in 2006, soldiers targeted her husband’s small shop when he was away.
“They wanted money,” she said. “If you have gold, they will take gold. If you have good clothes, they will take your clothes. Our shop, almost every month they came to our house because they needed money.”
One night, she grabbed her children – Isaac, 6, and Debra, 4 – and left the Congo.
“The day he (her husband) left, bullets started in our village,” she said. “We ran from our village to the next village. You could go and come back until they told us that could be our last day of living in our village. We were told it is going to be more dangerous than it has ever been before. For those who will survive, they should look for a way that is safe that goes to Uganda.”
She left with just the children.
“You do it secretly, hiding yourself so no one should see you,” she said. “We were fleeing from rebel bullets and machetes. I gave thanks to God. We were able to flee to the bush to hide ourselves. But the bush in Africa is also dangerous. There was death. Everywhere there was death.”
She and her children made it safely to Uganda.
For seven years, they lived in a refugee camp.
“When a refugee leaves his country and goes to another country as a refugee, they live there for so long,” she said. “So many years, we were taken care of by the United Nations and Red Cross.”
She taught herself to speak English by using a Bible written in French, which she grew up with, and a Bible written in English.
She was finally eligible to apply for settlement.
After some months, I was called and they told me America would receive me and give me settlement in their country. I did not know which state that would be.
Jolie Uwizeye, who came to Wichita 18 months ago
“I did not know who I was applying to, I just applied,” she said. “After some months, I was called and they told me America would receive me and give me settlement in their country. I did not know which state that would be.”
She had heard of California; New York; Washington, D.C.; Texas; and even Utah.
She also, through the Red Cross, learned the fate of her husband.
He was alive in Uganda, had remarried and had two small children.
“He did not know I was still alive at this time,” she said. “Our village, no one has ever come back to the village. By the time the Red Cross informed him, they had two children. I could not interfere.”
Life in America
Eighteen months ago, the Uwizeyes arrived in Wichita.
She became a maid, earning at first $9.76 an hour. She has since gotten a salary increase to $10.25 an hour.
“I feel our future is bright. We are blessed to be here,” she said. “I feel the things are going to be better, though today things are not yet. I wish them.”
It is hard to find affordable housing.
Her friends at church told her about Habitat for Humanity.
She told them: “Please, if you could find it for me, I would be so grateful.”
For now, the family lives in south Wichita. Their new house will be in the Delano neighborhood.
The Uwizeyes are just one family out of many helped each year, said Shawna Dennett, homeowner services director at Wichita Habitat for Humanity, now in its 30th year in Wichita.
We are working with people who want to become owners but can’t because of typical credit issues. They just need a hand up to get into affordable housing.
Shawna Dennett, homeowner services director at Wichita Habitat for Humanity
“We are working with people who want to become owners but can’t because of typical credit issues,” Dennett said. “They just need a hand up to get into affordable housing.”
Each family goes through an equity-building process, putting in their own energy and time toward building the homes of other people and their own – between 250 and 400 hours of sweat equity. In addition, they take home buyer education classes and develop a spending plan.
Work on the house will begin on June 3 near the Wichita Boat House and continue through Riverfest. After construction is completed, the house will be moved to the Delano neighborhood.
“When I was first introduced to Habitat, it sounds to me like a huge mountain I was going to climb,” Uwizeye said.
Now, she said, it is helping her build her new life.
“When I heard about sweat equity, I was like – hmm, I will sweat. I am going to sweat to get my own house,” she said. “I will have to do it, because I know what I want. I want my own house.”
Habitat for Humanity
To learn more about Wichita Habitat for Humanity, go to www.wichitahabitat.org or call 316-269-0755.