Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Ecstatic throng greets arrival of musical refugee family from Uganda

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If there's an African version of the Sound of Music ever made, it could be about the Mulimbwa family.

But instead of a large family of Austrian folk singers fleeing the Nazis, the nine Mulimbwas are gospel and hip-hop singers who fled Congolese government and rebel forces.

They didn't arrive by land over the Alps but by air from Uganda, where they waited for years with no place to call home -- until now.

On Tuesday, they arrived in Winnipeg to a jubilant throng of relatives and strangers welcoming them at Richardson International Airport with warm coats and hearts.

"We're still in shock," said Sylvie, the oldest child at 25. "We've been waiting for this a long time."

In 2002, they fled from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Uganda, where the refugees languished for close to a decade. Relatives and the congregation of First Presbyterian Church in Winnipeg sponsored them in 2006 to come to Canada. In mid-November, after waiting six years, they got the green light and their visas to come to this country.

"I had faith one day it would happen," said the father, Bahati, 55. He has a marketing degree and worked for a big sugar company in the DRC. He wants to go back to school to have his credentials recognized here and return to work as soon as possible.

"I'm very happy," said his wife, Esperance Safari, whose name means hope.

"After a long time of suffering, I've come here and I'm very excited," said the 50-year-old mother of six girls and a boy. The family is renting a small, two-storey home in St. Vital full of appliances they're learning to use for the first time.

The toaster, dishwasher, smooth-top electric stove and coffee maker are all foreign to them, said Nico, 17, their son. His aunt Stephanie and cousins who arrived in Winnipeg several years ago are helping them get accustomed to so many new things.

"They're teaching us," said Nico, offering a tour of the place. His sisters and parents share bedrooms on the second floor. He sleeps on a neatly made twin bed in the middle of the unfinished basement.

"We're not disappointed," said Odette, 19, the middle child. The youngest, Glodi, is 12.

They're looking forward to attending school but aren't yet sure where or when, said Nico.

 

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In Kampala, Uganda, the refugee family relied on support from relatives in Winnipeg and could only afford to send Nico and his two younger sisters to school. The family was rich in musical talent, though. The four older girls, who attended school before they fled the DRC, stayed home singing gospel and hip-hop, forming a group called The Bahatizz.

Here less than a week, they've already got gigs lined up this Sunday at churches in Lorette just east of the city and in Winnipeg, and are eager for more, said Francine, 21. Their songs are about human rights and hope, Rachel said.

Hope got them through the hard times, said dad Bahati, who studied theology as well as marketing.

"We're going to start fresh."

The hard times for Bahati began more than two decades ago in eastern Congo. His brother-in-law was killed, leaving his older sister, Stephanie, with four boys and no support in a country with no social safety net. Bahati adopted his four nephews so they could attend the school run by his employer, the sugar company in south Kivu, where he was also a pastor at his church. Then fighting broke out and the sugar plant had to close.

Bahati's oldest nephew, Martin, was sponsored by the Canadian government to come to Canada in 2000. Martin, who works as a computer technician for Great-West Life, sponsored his three brothers and their mom to come to Winnipeg. In 2006, they sponsored Bahati and Esperance and their seven kids through Hospitality House Refugee Ministry and Martin's First Presbyterian Church.

The family was rejected in 2010, but appealed to the Federal Court with the help of human rights lawyer David Matas. The decision was overturned.

When the Mulimbwas arrived in Winnipeg, there was much singing and dancing.

"It was a dream come true," said Martin, who's in a band of his own with two of his brothers.

For the refugee sponsors, it was part of an early Christmas present. Hospitality House learned in November that 30 people sponsored years ago were arriving within weeks, said Tom Denton, executive director of the agency. He was at the airport to greet the Mulimbwas Tuesday night.

"It was pandemonium. And it was wonderful."

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 8, 2012 B1

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Updated on Saturday, December 8, 2012 at 7:58 AM CST: adds video, replaces photo & adds photo

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