Editor’s Note: Freelance writer Levi Bridges of Sedgwick is documenting the lives of several immigrants in Maine. Their stories will appear periodically in the Bangor Daily News.
In the United States, one can easily lose interest in politics and news. But in countries where war is fought, ignoring current events is impossible. On a rainy day, I drive around Portland’s Back Cove, a tidal basin of mud flats ringing the city, and park by a series of apartment buildings behind a small shopping plaza. I’m here to meet with Ruben Ruganza, a pastor from the Democratic Republic of Congo in Central Africa. After enduring hardships in the DRC, a country fraught with decades of dictatorship and violent civil war, Ruganza was granted asylum in the U.S.
I scurry through the rain and knock on Ruganza’s door. A tall man with a warm smile lets me in. “Thank you for coming,” he said.
A small African village
Born in the small Congolese village of Mushojo in 1956, Ruganza spent his youth fleeing from war with his family. Like many Congolese displaced by violence, the family eventually settled in a city called Bukavu. “Bukavu was wonderful,” Ruganza recalled. “Beautiful hills and lakes surround the area outside the city. European colonizers called that region the Switzerland of Africa.”
Ruganza was sent away to school at an early age. He studied to be a teacher and founded a successful high school in rural DRC. He later earned a bachelor’s degree in health care management.
As a young man with a family, Ruganza managed a hospital in the small town of Kaziba, before returning to Bukavu where he spent 12 years overseeing hospitals and clinics throughout the eastern DRC.
“For that job, I frequently traveled by helicopter to remote places and brought sick people to Bukavu for medical care,” Ruganza said. “It felt great to help so many people.”
War and peace
Throughout Eastern Africa, the situation for Tutsis, the minority ethnic group targeted in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, remains dire in countries like the DRC. A Tutsi himself, Ruganza was targeted by roaming militias when war erupted again in the DRC in 1996. During his career, Ruganza often helped families that couldn’t pay their hospital fees, and he became well-known for his benevolence. When an armed group was sent to kill him, an anonymous person he helped years earlier sent a messenger to warn him.
“I’ll never forget that day,” Ruganza said. “It was Sunday, and I had just returned home from church. A messenger arrived telling me I’d be killed. He advised me to flee alone because, if we left together, my family might be killed too.”
Ruganza soon fled to neighboring Rwanda, whose Tutsi government ensured his safety. His wife and children arrived soon after.
For years, the family moved between the DRC and refugee camps in Rwanda. In 2004, they permanently resettled in the small African country of Burundi. In Burundi, Ruganza founded an organization called FAMA Ministries — Famille Maintenant or Family Now — that aids Burundian Pygmies, an indigenous people who historically inhabited Burundi’s rain forest. The rain forest had been cut down recently, leaving the Pygmies homeless and forcing them to abandon their native way of life.
“The Pygmies now live in makeshift huts built from cloth and tree branches that offer little protection from rain. The situation is horrible,” Ruganza said. Today, FAMA principally works to build suitable housing for Pygmies and educate their children. “Each time I fled from the DRC, my home was destroyed,” Ruganza said, “I know how difficult it is to start over.”
A safe place
Each year, thousands of foreign refugees fleeing war and violence in their home countries are allowed into the U.S. on asylum. In 2007, Ruganza was granted asylum in the U.S. because of safety concerns he does not want printed here. As have many African asylees, Ruganza settled in Portland.
“Maine was a great place to come because I already had friends and family who lived here,” he said. In Maine, Ruganza works both in and outside the immigrant community. Upon arrival, he befriended Barbara Appleby, a Maine woman who became chair of FAMA’s board.
“FAMA is a Maine-based organization working in Burundi, one of the world’s poorest countries,” said Appleby in a recent phone interview. “It’s great that Mainers and Africans are working together to create positive change in Eastern Africa.”
Ruganza also embarked on the equally ambitious project of starting a church in Maine after a group of Mainers and African immigrants asked him to become their pastor. Ruganza now preaches at the new Philadelphia Church in Portland.
“It has been a miracle just to be in Maine,” Ruganza said. “I never dreamed I could start a church here too.”
“Currently, our congregation is mainly African. But we don’t want one color in our church,” he said. “All people are welcome there.”
Although Ruganza enjoys working with new friends in Maine, some aspects of American culture worry him. “In Africa, parents have more free time to stay at home and take care of their children,” he said. “But American parents normally must work two jobs just to pay the rent. I fear that because kids spend more time alone in America, they run a greater risk of falling in with the wrong crowd.”
Ruganza also grapples with not spending enough time with his family. For asylees, bringing family to America is a difficult process. Ruganza has succeeded in bringing two of his sons to Maine, but his wife remains in Burundi with their other five children. As I leave his home, Ruganza accompanies me on his way to an English class he takes at USM.
“I love how cars stop for pedestrians here,” he said as we crossed a street. “In Africa, drivers don’t stop for you.”
We cross the street and Ruganza slows down. Even after the years of war he has witnessed, his face easily upturns into his patent warm smile.
“You know, I love how safe Maine is,” he said. “That’s such a wonderful thing.”
Levi Bridges grew up on a farm in Sedgwick. A graduate of Alfred University in New York, he has traveled extensively and studied abroad at universities in Mexico, Spain and Russia. He lives in Portland.
If you have an immigrant story in Maine you think should be told, e-mail Bridges at email@example.com.