Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Stunning surprise for refugees in city

Congolese arrive via Thailand

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Quesney Ramazani-Buledi (centre) with children Lauraine and Didier, leave the airport as Pastor John Salumu-Kasongo wheels their luggage.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Quesney Ramazani-Buledi (centre) with children Lauraine and Didier, leave the airport as Pastor John Salumu-Kasongo wheels their luggage. Photo Store

It was a reunion the refugees couldn't have imagined and had no words to describe Wednesday night at Richardson International Airport.

A clutch of Winnipeggers -- led by an indomitable woman who fought for the Buledi family to come to Canada -- stood waiting, their anticipation barely restrained at the foot of the arrivals escalator.

Phyllis Reader, her husband and family worked for four years to bring Congolese father Quesney Ramazani-Buledi, 34, his son, Didier, 15, and daughter Lauraine, 11, out of hiding from Bangkok, Thailand, and to Canada as legal refugees.

The family had lived as illegals in Bangkok after escaping the violence that spilled over into the Democratic Republic of Congo after the Rwandan massacres of the 1990s.

Wednesday night, through a series of unbelievable coincidences, Reader had invited two people who were old family friends to surprise the arrivals.

Faila Yuma and Calvary Temple Pastor John Salumu-Kasongo knew the Buledis before war tore their families apart a decade earlier.

The two Congolese had thought their family friend was lost forever or even dead until this week.

The single dad, who is a widower, and his two children were nearly the last passengers off the flight from Vancouver.

'I don't know if words of thanks will ever be enough'

-- Pastor John Salumu-Kasongo

There was a whoop of delight just as Reader leaned forward and confided, "I just hope he's on the plane."

The three flight-weary refugees rushed into Reader's embrace, heedless of tears, deep in hugs.

Then Reader, a recipient of a 2014 Governor General's award, composed herself, held Buledi steady in her gaze and said, "I have a surprise for you."

Salumu-Kasongo and his sister-in-law, Yuma, stepped forward. Buledi's eyes widened. "Ah," he cried.

Yuma and Salumu-Kasongo enfolded him and his family.

Reader's family and other friends captured the dramatic reunion in a circle of flashing cameras, iPhones and iPads.

"It's really difficult to find the exact words to describe what I feel right now," Buledi said later. "It's so much joy. So much emotion. There are no words to express it."

Yuma, who arrived in Canada with her husband and two children a year ago, gazed at the family, her eyes red with tears. Salumu-Kasongo was beaming.

"I don't know if words of thanks will ever be enough," Salumu-Kasongo said about Reader and her efforts to bring the family into Canada and reunite them.

Under the name the White Rose, Reader, her husband Ron and their relatives privately sponsored Buledi and his family. It wasn't easy.

The group worked four years to free the family from a hand-to-mouth life as illegal refugees in Bangkok, finally paying a head tax to get father and son out of detention on the eve of their deportation this week.

In order to leave, the family had to risk stepping forward after years of being illegal refugees in Thailand just so they could be officially deported. Reader talked the Thai authorities into imposing an extra cash penalty for Buledi's daughter to spare her the horrors of detention and then paid the head tax for all the family.

After spending seven days behind bars, the family was officially deported by Thai authorities a few days ago.

At the same time, Reader reached out to Winnipeg's Congolese community.

An elder called Calvary Temple leaving repeated messages before finally connecting with the pastor.

"He told me he had something to discuss with me," the pastor recounted. "That a brother was coming and the community needed to be there to help him."

The elder met the pastor at home Monday, forwarding an email with the Buledi family story and Buledi's photo. Reader had used it in fundraising efforts to seal the sponsorship.

The instant the pastor saw the photo, he called his wife to his side. "Don't read it. Just show her the photo," he recalled telling the elder.

"There was a resemblance," he said, hesitating. "I wanted to know, was what I was seeing what my wife would see? And what I was seeing was exactly what my wife was seeing. It was a shock. It was a joy."

Their last meeting with Buledi was an evening choir practice at church in the eastern Congolese city of Bukavu in 2004.

"I knew him through my wife. She and her sister grew up together in the same church. We didn't know he was alive. We didn't know," Salumu-Kasongo said.

Visibly overwhelmed with the family's arrival and the dramatic reunion, Reader gathered the Buledis in another group hug as luggage lumbered down the carousel. "Now you're free," she sighed.

 

alexandra.paul@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 19, 2014 A4

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