Jacques Mushagasha MA ’16 shared this op-ed in the June 19, 2021, Daily News-Record. He is a mediator for the Supreme Court of Virginia focusing on juvenile and family court, president of the Congolese Community of Harrisonburg and president of the Africa Network Initiative, which works with immigrant entrepreneurs in Virginia to grow small businesses. He was also featured in a June 21, 2021 article about World Refugee Day celebrations in Harrisonburg.
In 1998, I was forced to leave my home in the Democratic Republic of Congo because of a resurgence of conflict in the region. For four years, I waited in a refugee camp with my wife and four young children before we were finally granted the life-changing opportunity to resettle in the United States. We arrived in Baltimore in 2003 in the midst of a massive snowstorm that closed the roads and knocked out the power and the heat in our new home. Luckily, a volunteer came and took us to his house where we could stay warm and dry until the power came back on. This was my first experience with community members welcoming refugee families and showing us genuine kindness — but it certainly wasn’t the last.
We lived in Baltimore for several years, where I worked as a clinical assistant at Johns Hopkins University, before moving to Harrisonburg in 2011 to study at the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University. I graduated with a degree in conflict resolution because I was inspired to make a difference in ending the conflicts that have plagued my home country for generations. Today, I work as a mediator for the Supreme Court of Virginia focusing on juvenile and family court, where I assist many immigrant and refugee families like my own. I am also deeply involved in our community, serving as president of the Congolese Community of Harrisonburg and president of the Africa Network Initiative, which works with immigrant entrepreneurs in Virginia to grow small businesses. Like many refugees fortunate enough to be resettled in America, we give back, we take part, and we love this country.
I’ve loved living in Harrisonburg for the past 10 years because it is an ideal place to raise children and build a home. I received a warm welcome from the community when I moved here, and that has continued through to the present day. I’m reminded of the rich diversity of this community each year on World Refugee Day when I help to organize a grand picnic full of traditional foods from a variety of cultures. It is always a beautiful celebration that sends a clear message that refugees are human beings who make wonderful contributions to our community. We deserve to be treated with dignity and respect on World Refugee Day — and every day.
The details of my story are unique, but my journey is shared by countless others who also lost their homes and were uprooted from everything they knew. It is also a story of community — not just of refugees but of entire communities here in Harrisonburg and across the United States that made the choice to welcome me, and those like me, to our new homes.
Unfortunately, this dream is not possible for many others. I was one of the lucky ones who was able to be resettled in the wake of 9/11. I have friends who have spent more than 20 years waiting in refugee camps. This only worsened during the four years of the Trump administration, in which the refugee resettlement program was nearly destroyed. Last year, President Donald Trump set the refugee admissions cap at 15,000 — the lowest in history — and he didn’t even meet that goal. While we have newfound hope that President Joe Biden will rebuild the program, we must raise our voices to urge him to follow through on this commitment.
On this World Refugee Day, I’m inspired by the many ways Americans are choosing to support families like mine — including by the many Americans getting involved in the Ration Challenge, an interactive effort in which families live off the rations of a refugee for a week to raise money for refugees not yet resettled — and I’m inspired by my fellow refugees that are showing support right back.
But that support needs to come with policy change. I’m urging readers to join me in calling on the Biden administration to rekindle the hope this great country gave to families like mine by rebuilding the refugee resettlement program and meeting their goal of accepting 62,500 refugees this year. Our communities and our nation will be made more prosperous and strong when we restore policies that reflect our values and honor our promises to the thousands of refugee families who are looking for a safe place to call home.
Jacques Mushagasha is a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo. He has lived in the United States since 2003 and in Harrisonburg since 2011. He is a graduate of Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding and works as a family and juvenile mediator for the Supreme Court of Virginia. He is also the former president of the Congolese Community of Harrisonburg, an active member of the Virginia Immigrant Voice and currently serves as the president of Virginia Africa Partnership and Africa Network Initiative Inc.