'A Well-Founded Fear'

If he were to die, 10-year-old Baraka Kasongo hoped it would be by a bullet.

It would be quicker and far less painful than being hacked to death by a machete.

His mother is Tutsi, and his father is Hutu. Kasongo's family got caught in the crossfire between the two ethnic groups during the 1994 Rwanda genocide. An estimated 800,000 Rwandans died in the first 100 days of the bloodshed, according to the United Nations.

Seeing people raped, burned alive and massacred in the streets were some of the last memories Kasongo has of his homeland.

"People, for lack of better words, are just evil," he said.

His family spent the next seven years walking barefoot from Rwanda to Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) to Burundi to Tanzania to Zambia in Central Africa.

They later applied for refugee status and resettlement in the United States.

In 2016, less than one percent of all the world's refugees were resettled, according to the U.N. After taking office in 2017, President Donald Trump slashed the number of refugees allowed into the U.S. by more than half. So far this year, 939 refugees have resettled in Virginia, compared to 4,154 last year, according to the Virginia Department of Social Services.

Ethnic violence between Hutus and Tutsis followed the Kasongos into Congo. The Congolese civil war raged on during the two years the Kasongos spent hiding there.

They lived in forests for weeks, trekking to nearby lakes for fresh drinking water. Kasongo said they had to be wary of lions, hyenas and venomous snakes while they hid in the tall grass.

He said militia were also on the hunt for refugees, stabbing aimlessly into the grass with machetes they had taped to the ends of their machine guns.

"You can feel the hairs on the back of your neck standing up because you have no idea what's ahead of you in this forest," Kasongo said.

Hiding soon became difficult for the group of nine, so they split up to increase their chances of survival.

"We woke up and the decision was...just hug your father and two brothers 'cause this could be it," Kasongo said.

Kasongo, his three sisters, younger brother and mother decided to flee to Burundi. His two older brothers and father would cross Lake Tanganyika to Tanzania, a safer country for males at that time.

Kasongo said he thought there was a "98 percent" chance he would never see his father or brothers again because the militia killed more men than women in an effort to avoid retaliation.

As the new "man of the family," he said the fear that his mother and sisters would be raped and killed kept him up at night.

Dead bodies had nearly dammed the river between Congo and Burundi, Kasongo said, by the time he and his group arrived at a bridge between the two nations. He remembered crows circling the corpses overhead.

Soldiers were dividing the males from the females as they attempted to cross, Kasongo said.

"They were killing every male. If you were male, you were dying. ... I went with my mother because I was young enough to be disguised as a female," he said. "I know what it's like to wear a skirt, by the way."

Kasongo swears to this day that one soldier in particular knew he was a boy masquerading as a girl.

"He kept staring at me. ... I'm watching him in my peripheral vision. And I'm just waiting, as soon as I pass him, he's going to slice me with this big machete he had in his hand," he said. "It's like the weight of my life is in every step."

The soldier allowed them to pass.

But Burundi was no place of refuge. Clashes between Hutu rebels and the country's Tutsi army were constant.

Once again, the Kasongos were forced into the forests.

They were killing every male.
If you were male,
you were dying.
— Baraka Kasongo

Six months after Kasongo's family split up, they all reunited in a refugee camp in Tanzania.

Yet Kasongo never expected to make it to America.

"The opportunity to come to the U.S. is extremely rare, and I still can't believe my family was awarded this great opportunity, compared to the millions of people that don't even have a shot," Kasongo said.

He and his family landed in New York as refugees in April 2001.

Kasongo's seven-year battle for survival was behind him. But another struggle was just beginning.

Starting over

All refugees are immigrants, but not all immigrants are refugees.

The U.N. defines refugees as people with a "well-founded fear" that they will face religious, ethnic, racial or social persecution should they return to their home countries. People seeking refugee status cannot obtain it if they are trying to evade the law.

The president decides precisely how many of the over 20 million refugees in the world are allowed to enter the United States each year.

Jim Hershberger, CWS program coordinator

The State Department and the U.N. vet the refugees in camps around the world. Nine non-profit resettlement agencies in the U.S. work with state social services to help refugees find homes and adjust to America.

Two agencies serve the Shenandoah Valley: Church World Service (CWS) and Commonwealth Catholic Charities (CCC). 

A local branch of CWS has resettled over 3,000 refugees from across the globe in the Harrisonburg area since it opened in 1988.

As of the 2017-2018 school year, 46 percent of students attending Harrisonburg City Public Schools were born outside of the U.S., according to data from the school system.

In Roanoke, a regional office of CCC resettles about 25 percent more refugees than the CCC branch in Richmond, according to the agency.

Laura Murphy, resettlement director at CCC Roanoke, said there are benefits to settling in the more rural Shenandoah Valley.

"Overall, I think it's an excellent place for refugees to come," she said. "It's cheap, and especially if you're trying to get on your feet, it's affordable."

Once they arrive in the U.S., refugees are placed on a path to American citizenship. They can apply for permanent residency after one year and can seek citizenship after five years.

Each refugee receives at least $925 for 90 days.

Case workers also set up their clients to receive benefits like Medicaid and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). The TANF program provides cash and job training to low-income parents to help them care for their children. Such benefits last until the refugees reach government-imposed thresholds for financial independence.

The files are sitting there on someone’s desk, and the bureaucrats are not working on them.
— Jim Hershberger

Murphy said CCC does not typically have a hard time finding jobs for refugees. But their first jobs here rarely match what they did back home.

Refugee status is not the only route for persecuted people to find safety on U.S. soil.

Arsalan Syan arrived in Harrisonburg in November 2016 on a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV). The State Department issues 50 SIVs per year for people who work as interpreters for the U.S Army in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Syan is from Kurdistan, a region in northern Iraq populated by an ethnic group called the Kurds. He said his people faced decades of oppression at the hands of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Hussein ordered the use of chemical weapons against the Kurds in the late '80s after he accused the group of helping Iran in its war against Iraq.

After the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, Syan realized that if he worked with the Army, he could get his family out of the country.

He said he abandoned his life as a mechanical engineer after his family began receiving threats because of his work for the American military.

Syan said he also wanted educational opportunities for his children that they could never get in Iraq.

the trump effect

Syan said he was lucky he arrived in the United States when he did, a couple of months before Donald Trump took office in January 2017.

In the first year of his presidency, Trump directed the State Department to cut the number of refugees permitted to enter the U.S. from an Obama-era high of 110,000 for 2017 to 45,000 for 2018.

In the fall of 2016, the State Department said that ISIS, a terrorist group in Iraq and Syria, could infiltrate the U.S. through the refugee program.

Trump then launched his policy of "extreme vetting" of immigrants. 

His 45,000 cap is the lowest since 1980 when Congress gave presidents the power to control refugee arrivals. It's even lower than the number set in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

In Virginia, refugee arrivals decreased beginning in late 2017 because of a slow down at the State Department in approvals of refugees.

"They're just not processing refugees," said Jim Hershberger, director of refugee resettlement at CWS's Harrisonburg office. "The files are sitting there on someone's desk, and the bureaucrats are not working on them."

His staff is feeling the effects. "We have over 100 people that are assigned to this office that are all on hold," he said. "Two years ago, the only reason somebody would have been on hold is if there would have been some odd, kind of quirky thing in their case."

Hershberger said he would be surprised if more than 20,000 refugees are resettled in the U.S. this year.