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After Years In Refugee Camps, A Family Celebrates Its First Christmas In The U.S.


Refugees coming to the U.S. face all kinds of challenges to learn the language, find a job and a place to live. Then there's the American holiday season, with all of its quirks and customs. One family, just arrived from the Democratic Republic of Congo, found it can take a village, indeed, to learn how to navigate life in their new country. NPR's Denise Guerra paid them a visit in their home in Silver Spring, Md.


DENISE GUERRA, BYLINE: It's a familiar scene - a family gathering on a Sunday afternoon, kids off playing somewhere in the house. But in the kitchen, Swahili fills the room.

CECIL FURAHA: (Speaking Swahili).

GUERRA: That's 30-year-old Cecil Furaha. She's crushing ginger for pilau, a popular rice dish in her part of the world. Some other friends have joined, too.

SHARON FINE: What else? Coconut milk?

UNIDENTIFIED VOLUNTEER #1: Ginger, black pepper.

GUERRA: It's safe here in this cozy suburban home, but life wasn't always this way for Cecil. Back in Congo, she faced constant threats from warring ethnic factions. When she was 7 years old, her parents were killed. She says life there was a life of mourning, of problems. She remembered a day in the marketplace when soldiers attacked.

C FURAHA: (Through interpreter) There was a small child, and they hit him hard on the head. Pow. And his head just burst open. I don't have the math to explain how many people died. There's just too many to count - too many. So we went to Uganda.

GUERRA: Cecil was just 17 when she fled with her husband Roger and two toddlers. At the refugee camp, the U.N. offered them housing, food ration cards and a plot of land to grow food. Over the next 13 years at the camp, Cecil gave birth to four children and adopted three others. Finally, after almost a decade of vetting, they were granted asylum in America.


FINE: Do we add water?

GUERRA: Helping out in the kitchen is Sharon Fine, a local sixth-grade teacher. She's part of a group of a hundred volunteers helping Cecil and her family. They represent a range of faiths. Fine is working through her synagogue.

FINE: No Jew has to look very far in their history to find a refugee.

GUERRA: The volunteers raise funds for housing and furniture. They help the family navigate schooling and transportation. The biggest problem, says Fine, is finding jobs.

FINE: Roger worked at a nightclub on Friday and Saturday nights, and that went well. And he applied to Safeway and Giant, so we're very hopeful something is going to come through.

GUERRA: English has also been a big struggle. Roger is attending daytime classes while Cecil stays home to take care of the younger kids.

C FURAHA: (Through interpreter) I'm learning slowly. The studies are helping me, little by little, and Roger. We see that our lives are going forward. And the children will continue to move forward.

GUERRA: Cecil said it's been easier for the kids to adapt to the U.S. Five are enrolled in public school, including 16-year-old Fikiri.

FIKIRI FURAHA: (Through interpreter) As time passes, we get used to life here, even the cold. We will understand more soon, and we will adjust slowly.


GUERRA: In the living room, the family and guests assemble a plastic Christmas tree piece by piece.

UNIDENTIFIED VOLUNTEER #2: Like, over the tree like that.

GUERRA: Cecil and Roger's family is Christian, and they celebrated Christmas in Africa. Roger says the holiday is a much bigger deal in the U.S.

ROGER FURAHA: (Through interpreter) For us, Christmas is just another day in the year. But I think every day is a blessing. Even for us on Christmas, we have food together. We drink a soda. We sit together in our houses with our children. We say, thank you, Jesus. Here, it is different. The houses are decorated. Everything has been changed for the holiday.

GUERRA: Roger watches the tree-decorating chaos thoughtfully from the distance. He just can't wrap his head around the idea of assembling a large plastic tree inside his home.


GUERRA: But the kids are loving it.

UNIDENTIFIED VOLUNTEER #2: All right. Ready? Careful. Gentle.

FINE: Can you get it on the very top, Bisani (ph)?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Speaking Swahili).

FINE: Turn it. Yes. Nice job.

GUERRA: After the excitement of the holidays has passed, the volunteers will still be helping. They've committed to assist the family for a full year. Sharon Fine says she plans to stick around even longer.

FINE: They really are my family now. So I hope - I feel, actually, that they'll always be a big part of my life.

GUERRA: Cecil and Roger feel the same way.

R FURAHA: (Through interpreter) They're people with very big hearts who live with a lot of love. They took us in, and it is good now to be with family.

GUERRA: But for many other families, a situation like Cecil, Roger's and their kids' remains a distant hope. In 2018, the Trump administration admitted 18,500 fewer refugees than last year. Denise Guerra, NPR News.

SIMON: And our Kroc Fellow Henry Zimmerman contributed to that report.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio version of this story, we incorrectly report that in 2018, the Trump administration admitted 18,500 fewer refugees than last year. In fact, in fiscal year 2018, the Trump administration admitted 31,225 fewer refugees than in fiscal year 2017.]

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.