His family was supposed to travel with him, completing their long escape as refugees from war and genocide in Africa, but Irene Ndizeye arrived in Philadelphia alone.
He has spent the last six weeks taking English classes, navigating SEPTA, searching for a job — and most of all wondering how, or even if, he can bring his parents and four siblings to the United States.
In that, Ndizeye, 21, has one big asset: a caring group of church members and resettlement officers eager to help. And he has one big problem: a cascade of federal court appeals and rulings that has allowed the Trump administration to dramatically slow the flow of refugees into this country, at least until a full Supreme Court hearing in October.
Ndizeye’s family could be stuck in the Republic of Congo.
“I miss them a lot,” he said in French during an interview at St. Raymond of Penafort Catholic Church in East Mount Airy.
Ndizeye landed in the United States with a single suitcase and an uncertain smile. Resettlement workers, expecting seven people, had to shelve extensive plans to house and support them. No one understood what went wrong, including Ndizeye, who figured his family would be on the next plane, only hours or days behind.
That did not happen. A recent WhatsApp message from his parents shed light on why.
As Ndizeye neared age 18, his father thought he would be better off with his own independent status as a refugee. One person alone might make it out more easily than seven, his parents wrote.
And one did.
President Trump’s ban on travel from six Muslim-majority countries has generated confusion, protest, and litigation – and impacts both broad and specific. Last month, the Supreme Court offered some clarity on who can enter the country while legal challenges play out, allowing the “bona fide relationship” needed for entry to include grandparents and other close relatives of American residents. But it left in place sweeping restrictions on refugees, barring those with no close family here.
Ndizeye’s hopes for reunification face an added complication: By age 2, his biological mother was dead, his father missing. The people who saved him as a baby and raised him to adulthood, the man and woman he calls father and mother, are his parents by love, not blood.
“He was raised by these folks in every sense of the word,” said Dan McVay, a leader with REST in Philly, the Refugee Empowerment Support Team, which works with refugees sponsored by Bethany Christian Services.
It’s unclear how the courts will view those relationships, especially at a time when the U.S. government is deporting people who were legally adopted as babies from such places as South Korea, but who as adults are found to lack American citizenship.
As the clock ticks, critical admission and medical permits might expire for families hoping to travel to the U.S. or other countries. Some resettlement agencies have laid off staff as the refugee stream has narrowed.
“People who don’t have relatives here are really out of luck for the foreseeable future,” said Rona Buchalter, director of refugee programming and planning at HIAS Pennsylvania, which provides legal services to those entering the country as immigrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers. “The whole world right now is in this same situation of not knowing from week to week.”
Ndizeye’s family has formal refugee status, and Bethany stands ready to welcome them, but the agency has had no firm word from Africa on when they might be able to leave.
“They are scared that they will not be allowed to come here anymore,” Ndizeye said. “But I told them that it’s temporary, and that sooner or later we will all be together again.”
On Wednesday, another potential obstacle arose. Trump joined two Republican senators to tout legislation that would put new limits on legal immigration, creating a system designed to prize job skills over family ties, and at the same time halve the number of refugees accepted by the United States. In 2015, about 70,000 people were granted entry as they fled war or violence.
Amid the tumult, McVay and others are introducing Ndizeye to his new country. They took him rollerskating, to Dorney Park, and to a Trenton Thunder baseball game, where he tasted cotton candy.
His impression? “It’s a country of freedom,” he said.
He says he feels guilty for not staying in the Republic of Congo with his family, for taking the opportunity to leave. He felt it was now or never. And he may have been right. He arrived June 22, which turned out to be days before the Supreme Court said it would let parts of Trump’s travel ban take effect.
McVay worries that as the shine of a new homeland wears off, Ndizeye will grow heartsick. Two weeks ago at a central African music festival, McVay said, Ndizeye seemed a little sad, happy to hear the music but rueful that his family could not enjoy it, too.
His Facebook page shows photos of him dressed in star-spangled shorts, posing beside a Ben Franklin impersonator, and strolling among bronze statues of the founders at the National Constitution Center. But he recently changed his profile picture to an illustration of a dark, shrouded figure, head bowed and face hidden.
In a way, the arc of his journey was set before his birth. In 1994, the African nation of Rwanda exploded, as members of the Hutu ethnic majority murdered as many as 800,000 people in 100 days, most from the Tutsi minority.
Millions who ran for their lives ended up across the border, in refugee camps in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Ndizeye was born there on May 30, 1996. Five months later, Rwandan troops attacked the border camps, killing thousands in what they called an assault against extremists.
Ndizeye’s biological parents fled with their baby to a second camp in a third country, landing near the capital of Brazzaville in the Republic of Congo. There, he lost them, and was informally adopted by a couple who were friends of his mother’s. Refugees generally have no standing in the country where they live, no path to citizenship, no work, no money, and no recourse.
“Many of them feel like they have nothing left to lose — their lives are next,” said Peter Gottemoller, director of Pennsylvania refugee programs for Bethany in Philadelphia.
When Irene (pronounced E-René) was 5 or 6, his family managed to leave the camp and move to Brazzaville. As he grew, he dropped out of school to support the family. Ndizeye earned money pushing a wheelbarrow, toting packages from the local markets to people’s homes. Later, he got a job selling cellphone minutes.
As the eldest child, he said, he had a duty to support his siblings and parents. It remains his duty now, he added. He’s quickly learning English – his fourth language – and has secured a Society Security number and state identification card.
Ndizeye knows President Trump has spoken harshly of immigrants, but says it makes no difference. He doesn’t need kind words. He needs a job, and the type of work doesn’t matter.
“Whatever was happening in Africa,” he said, “was worse.”
69,933 — Refugees admitted to the U.S. in 2015.
2,764 — Refugees resettled in Pennsylvania that year.
637 — Refugees from Bhutan, the largest sending country to Pennsylvania.
1 — Refugees from Jordan, tied with four other countries for the lowest sending nation to Pennsylvania.