Jean-Claude was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where he grew up with his mother and seven sisters. The DRC has a history of violence and rebellion due to political and economic disputes stemming from its colonization. In 1996, the year he turned 16, conditions worsened and life became increasingly more dangerous - mass killings, torture, and rape were rampant. Rebel armies kidnapped able-bodied men and forced them to either join their army or be killed.
Jean-Claude’s mother did everything she could to get him out of the country. In the end, he walked alone on foot to Tanzania with no belongings. He lived in the tent-strewn Nyarugusu refugee camp, along with 200,000 other refugees, ninety percent of whom were Congolese. With no work authorization or educational opportunities, Jean-Claude spent every day waiting until he could go home.
After two years the violence in DRC began to subside, so Jean-Claude returned to the DRC in the hopes of continuing his education. However, immediately upon his return, the rebels kidnapped him, along with 500 others who had refused to join their group, and herded them like sheep to be slaughtered. A friend of his who was now part of the rebellion saw him in the crowd and helped him escape—just in time. Jean-Claude returned to Tanzania, but could not bear to return to the refugee camp, so he decided to risk living undocumented in Kigoma, Tanzania.
Because he was undocumented, he spent many nights in jail, but refused to go back to the camp. He worked side jobs installing computers until he saved up $100, and with his earnings he bought a ticket for a ship that took him across Lake Tanganyika, the second largest freshwater lake in the world. Across the lake was Zambia, then Zimbabwe, where he had heard conditions for refugees were much better. In the Zimbabwean Tongogara refugee camp they lived in houses instead of tents, learned English, and were offered educational opportunities. Many of the refugees in the camp completed high school and some of them, including Jean-Claude, even received sponsorships to go to college. It was here that Jean-Claude was able to pursue his college education, earning a Bachelor’s degree in Rural and Urban Planning, a Master’s in Peacebuilding and Conflict Resolution and a Master’s in International Relations. With no work authorization he spent his days immersing himself in his studies.
Unfortunately, due to decades of land reform leading to severe food insecurity and a deeply rooted distrust of foreigners, Zimbabweans began committing violent acts toward refugees, including Jean-Claude. Fearing for his life, he immediately applied for protection from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), but it took five years for his case to be approved so he could be referred for resettlement.
In 2009, at the age of 30, Jean-Claude arrived in Fort Worth, Texas. Refugee Services of Texas (RST) was there to greet him and help him get settled into his new home. In relief-laden nostalgia, he recalled, “After I arrived I hung my head… because it felt like my life had finally begun.”
Jean-Claude is now married with two beautiful children and holds a Bachelor’s and now three Master’s degrees. He is an official representative and advocate for Texas for the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) Refugee Academy, a Refugee Congress Delegate for UNHCR, and is active in a local refugee ministry that he helped establish at Christ Chapel Bible Church. He is a highly valued employee at RST, a leader among his community, and a voice forrefugees seeking hope and opportunity.