SALT LAKE CITY — A refugee woman from Congo has started a new life in Utah, and shares her story of survival with her new friends and neighbors to offer them hope.
Ushuuda Prosperine Mugirwanake, 26, arrived in Utah in February and quickly made friends with her neighbors and others.
Mugirwanake was born in the Congo and survived the ethnic wars and political unrest in the region. She was forced to leave her home and reside in refugee camps in Uganda. Her bright smile and warm eyes mask the pain she endured in the Congo and within the refugee camps.
"In Uganda, it was a very, very bad life because sometimes people sleep outside," Mugirwanake said. "Women who sleep outside get raped."
Murgirwanake was among those women raped, several times. She said the camps are overcrowded and poorly protected. Now she is caring for two children conceived in those violent attacks.
"You can cry. It's not easy to explain," she said. "It's like cancer on my heart because every time I see my kids, I remember those problems [rapes]."
Mugirwanake said she has seen families beat and then abandon victims, especially women who become pregnant from rapes, which are many.
"The husbands say ‘I don't like the women who are getting raped,'" Mugirwanake said. "'You never know, maybe you get some HIV.'"
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She has been receiving counseling to help her process the experience and the emotions that accompany such tragic events.
"It's not easy for women to say I can give my baby away because of my husband," she explained. "Many women have a lot of pressure about that."
With the tender touch and kind voice of a loving mother, it's clear Mugirwanake loves her sons Glory Christian, 5, Victoire Samson, 3, and Moses Joiye, 1. She's expecting one more child in a few months.
Mugirwanake is one of many refugees who have received help from the Catholic Community Services in Salt Lake City. Director of Immigration and Refugee Resettlement Aden Batar said he has been working with Utah refugees fro over 20 years, and that the Congo has been going through ethnic wars and political unrest for over 16 years.
"The situation in Congo is not getting better. Every day we hear horror stories," Batar said. "People have been killed, women have been raped, and children are dying from malnutrition."
Batar said the United States has resettled about 10,000 Congolese refugees over the years and are expecting another wave of at least 10,000 more. Hundreds of them will call Utah home.
"These groups have been in refugee camps for decades and they don't have anywhere to go back to," Batar said. "The refugee camps are packed and [resettlement] is the only way these families can survive."
She's always smiling and laughing. And with all that she's been through I wonder how she can do that.
–Mary Wedel, volunteer
Since 1978, Utah has received over 43,000 refugees from all over the world. Every year the state receives about 1200 refugees. So far this year, Utah has become home to 450 refugees, the largest groups have come from the Congo, Somalia, Iraq, and Burma. Utah is helping all of them.
Batar said Utah is ideal for refugees, especially females who have been victims of violent crimes because the state is extremely generous.
"We are a family oriented state, we have a lot of volunteers, and our state has a lot of resources to help them," said Batar.
Mugirwanake receives help from volunteers like Mary Wedel. Through her church, St. Thomas Moore, Wedel works with several refugee families. Wedel spends a few hours a week playing with Mugirwanake's boys so that she'll have time to complete chores and have time for herself.
"She's [Ushuuda] such a good mom. Her kids are happy. And she is so grateful," Wedel said. "She's always smiling and laughing. And with all that she's been through I wonder how she can do that."
Before relocating to Utah, Mugirwanake worked as a seamstress but thieves stole her sewing machine in the refugee camps. Now she plans to go to school and later work with refugee women like herself who have been victims of violent crimes. She said she knows their pain.
"I said ‘God if I get help, then I can work in the refugee office and help these women because I know that problem [rape] for women in Africa,'" Mugirwanake said.
She also feels safe in Utah.
"I feel like my life has changed. I say ‘thank you God for everything,'" said Mugirwanake.
Catholic Community Services has more information on how Utahans can help refugees at www.ccsutah.org