Concord’s refugee community says goodbye to two young mothers

  • Veronike Baseme (left) stands with family members of Nelly Uwituze, who died in a car crash on Interstate 93 earlier this month. The group watched as Pastor Clement Kigugu and Blossom Hill Cemetery officials work out the plot arrangements for Uwituze’s burial. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Veronike Baseme (left) with family members of Nelly Uwituze, who died in a car accident on Interstate 93. They watch as Pastor Clement Kiguguand officials of Blossom Hill Cemetery work out the plot arrangements for burial on Tuesday, November 13, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Pastor Clement Kiguguand (center) and  officials along with family members of work out the plot arrangements for burial of Nelly Uwituze on Tuesday, November 13, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Pastor Clement Kiguguand (right) and  officials of Blossom Hill Cemetery along with family members work out the plot arrangements for burial of Nelly Uwituze and on Tuesday, November 13, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Butonga Zawadi, 25, and her son, Masin William.  Courtesy

  • Nelly Uwituze, 24, also had a young child. Courtesy

  • —Courtesy

  • Pastor Clement Kigugu (left) helps Emile Muhire with his travel documents at Kigugu’s office on Airport Road. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Clement Kigugu helps Rukangira Sepa at his office on Airport Road on Friday, November 16, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Emile Muhire looks over the documents that Pastor Clement Kigugu helped him with at the pastor’s office on Airport Road on Friday, November 16, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Jackie Agasaro, 48, (right) looks at photos of her friend, Nelly Uwituze, from their time in a Uganda refugee camp.  LEAH WILLINGHAM / Monitor staff

  •  Jackie Agasaro thumbs through photos of her friend, Nelly Uwituze. LEAH WILLINGHAM / Monitor staff

  • Veronike Baseme (left), Christian Uwituze (center) and Jackie Agasaro sit in Nelly Uwituze’s apartment on Monday.  LEAH WILLINGHAM / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 11/17/2018 1:13:08 PM

Veronike Baseme’s blue umbrella couldn’t stop the rain from falling on her toes.

She walked along the path at Blossom Hill Cemetery last week wearing black strappy flip flops, navigating deep brown puddles so her feet didn’t sink into inches of cold mud. She had no jacket, just colorful green garments with patterns of fish and leaves that wrapped loosely around her shoulders and waist. Her pastor and the cemetery director led the way to an area where the headstones were more sparse. Baseme looked at the wet ground where her cousin would be buried.

Nelly Uwituze died in a car crash on Interstate 93 on Nov. 2 while driving home from a factory job in Northfield with another Congolese refugee, a woman named Butonga Zawadi. The car skidded off the road in Canterbury and hit a tree, killing the women instantly.

Uwituze’s husband, who is living as a refugee in Africa, is trying to get to the United States as quickly as he can. As Uwituze’s only adult family member on the continent, Baseme was responsible for making all decisions on her cousin’s behalf – what would happen to her two young boys, her apartment, her belongings and where she would be laid to rest.

Baseme relied on her pastor, Clement Kigugu, to translate for her and help make decisions.

Kigugu runs an organization to help African refugees adjust to life in Concord and was the one who told the Uwituze and Zawadi families that the women had died. The first responders were not able to speak Swahili. Kigugu had to call Broken Ground School, where Uwituze’s 8-year-old son was a student; he called her boss at work; and he arranged service and burial details with the funeral home.

He said refugees who have trouble reading their mail because they don’t speak English come to him. Planning a funeral was another task entirely.

“Without the services I provide, or people like me, I don’t know what they would do without that,” he said. “It would be very hard.”

It’s a common situation for refugees just arriving in the United States. Although free from ethnic violence, they are not truly autonomous in their new country.

Since the early-1980s more than 7,500 refugees have made New Hampshire their home, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Concord has accepted more refugees per-capita than any other New Hampshire city.

Uwituze, 24, and Zawadi, 25, had both lived in the United States for less then three years, after traveling 10,000 miles away from their home countries and surviving a combined 25 years in refugee camps in Uganda and Tanzania. Both were young mothers.

At Blossom Hill, Baseme and Kigugu chose a spot close to the road.

“They’re going to be buried side by side,” Kigugu said walking Baseme back to the car, rain fogging up his glasses. “They will always be here together.”

‘As Africans, we are all friends’

Butonga Zawadi’s younger brother, Shabani Zawadi, knows the exact date his family moved to the United States: Feb. 11, 2016.

It is a date that’s been ingrained into his memory – the date that he, his parents and his four siblings left the Tanzanian refugee camp they had been living in for 20 years before moving to snowy New England.

Sitting on a couch in his family’s apartment on the Concord Heights, wearing a shiny jacket and black sandals, Shabani, 22, admits that Concord wouldn’t have been his first choice for relocation – he doesn’t like the weather and there’s not much of a social life. But anything is better than the refugee camp, where none of his family members could work and they lived in poverty.

Kigugu said most people who come from refugee camps are used to living in small tents, without electricity, and almost no access to health care.

“They need to start over, learning everything – how to switch the lights off and on, how to clean a house, how to use a vacuum, how to live with other people,” he said.

In the year and 10 months since his family arrived in the United States, Shabani has been able to get his own apartment and work – first at Walmart in Concord and now at Harvey Building Products, a company that makes windows and doors in Londonderry.

When he worked at Walmart, he met Nelly Uwituze, who worked there for almost two years after coming to the United States. As fellow Congolese refugees, they became close, Shabani said.

Many members of the African community know each other in Concord – the 600 people from Africa who live in the city now worship and socialize together, Shabani said.

“As Africans, we are all friends,” he said.

Shabani’s sister Zawadi, 25, was the only one who was old enough to remember anything about Congo. She was around three when they left; Shabani was an infant.

Zawadi celebrated the culture through her love of traditional Congolese choir music, her brother said. She made food for herself, her 2-year-old son and her six other family members every night at their apartment off of East Side Drive. Her favorite food to make was ugali, a cornmeal porridge.

He said his sister was a hard worker who would do anything for her family. Sometimes she would help him pay rent when he needed it.

She worked for about a year at a pizza place before she got her recent job at Freudenberg-NOK Sealing Technologies in Northfield, where she worked with Uwituze. Kigugu said many African immigrants work there, including his wife. Zawadi and Uwituze worked the same shift and started at the company three days before they died.

Both women were single mothers who were devoted to their children, Shabani said.

“She planned to buy a house, to do a lot of things, big things,” Shabani said of his sister. “It just stopped all their dreams.”

‘We have a new life here in America’

Kigugu’s first experience bringing a community together was after genocide.

He lived in Rwanda for more than 10 years following an ethnic war that started in 1994, and helped work with victims on both sides of the conflict, as well as people diagnosed with HIV.

“It’s the same experience, to teach people how to live together – not forget, but just forgive, and move forward with their life,” Kigugu said. “We have a new life here in America, people should not keep thinking about the past.”

In his tiny office on Airport Road, a building he shares with a number of other companies, including Concord Cab and a youth counseling service, Kigugu helps refugees fill out food stamp, Medicaid and housing applications, create resumes or make phone calls.

His organization is called “Overcomers Support Services” to represent what his clients have had to overcome. He also helps people with health referrals, transportation to appointments, counseling and English language skills, and hosts a youth and women’s support group.

Kigugu, who speaks five languages, was able to learn English himself when he came to New Hampshire through Second Start. He said learning English can be difficult for new Americans as they settle into a new culture. Many refugees work 40 or more hours a week – some at night – and have to balance that with tending to their families.

“That’s why most of them, they miss doctor’s appointments, food stamp office appointments,” Kigugu said. “They get mail, and they just put it somewhere and don’t know what to do. They need someone to read their mail for them, to tell them what they need to do next.”

Kigugu started his work in Concord as a pastor at a Christian Pentecost church, “Overcomers Church,” which shares space with the United Baptist Church on Fayette Street. People would come to him after services with their mail, and job applications, asking for his help.

He realized there was a need in the community. At the same time, he was working at the resettlement agency, where he served a number of different roles: medical interpreter, case worker and employment specialist.

After years of fundraising, he was able to start his non-profit.

Even in the snow on Friday, there was a line of new Americans outside his door, many of whom had walked to his office in heavy snow gear to get help and advice.

“If you sit here all day, you’ll realize how much it is really helping the community,” he said.

As of now, Kigugu is able to be paid for 32 hours of work a week.

“If they have really emergent things, I cannot say, ‘Oh, we’re closed,’ ” he said. “I still help them.”

He knew the two women who died in the car accident before he began helping their families; Uwituze was a singer in the choir at his church. He had worked on the cases of both women at the resettlement agency.

“When they asked everybody, ‘Who we should call?’ they say, ‘Call Clement,’ ” he said, sitting in his office. “It’s a reference for everybody.”

Since then, he has been visiting the families every day.

Nelly’s house

There are times when 8-year-old Christian Uwituze understands that his mother is gone.

Kigugu said the boy alternates between comprehending what happened – he went up to his mother’s room crying the other day – to thinking she’s in the hospital temporarily and will come back soon.

On Monday, home for Veterans Day, Christian was watching a television show in his mother’s apartment wearing pajamas decorated with soccer balls and footballs. Baseme and a group of Uwituze’s close friends sat around her dining room table.

When he heard people talking about his mom, Christian ran up and got a stack of photos of her with him and his 3-year-old brother.

Kigugu went to court last week to argue that temporary guardianship of the two children be granted to Baseme and Jackie Agasaro, a woman Uwituze met in a refugee camp and was like a surrogate mother to her.

Kigugu is trying to work with the Ugandan and U.S. governments to get Uwituze’s husband to the country to take care of his children.

The couple remained close – even though an ocean separated them. They talked every day, including on the day she was killed.

“She really believed that her husband would come to this country one day and they would take care of the kids together,” Baseme said, with Kigugu translating.

Agasaro said she admired Uwituze’s dedication to her kids, and worries about their futures.

“She was a single mom, very respected in our community. She respected herself. She was really focused on taking care of the kids and was working hard to provide for them,” she said. “She would want them to have everything they could possibly have.”

Kigugu said there’s no way of knowing what will happen next for the family and the children.

“We’ll have to wait to find out,” he said. “It would be a big help to have dad here.”

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