Congolese Immigrants Search For A Voice

Members of the Congolese Community of Arizona gather at a recent meeting. From left to right, Saafi Lolika, Pastor Guy Lolika, and Elie Mamboleo.
Nick Blumberg
By Nick Blumberg
October 25, 2011

PHOENIX -- The Reconciliation Church of God is in a nondescript strip of buildings on a quiet street in West Phoenix. But inside, where a group of Africans and African-Americans are holding Sunday services, it’s much louder.

The air is thick with music and preaching different languages…Swahili, French, English, and Lingala. Pastor Guy is talking about courage, faith, and self-determination.

In addition to his ministry, Pastor Guy is also the spiritual leader of a organization closely tied to the church, called the Congolese Community of Arizona. It provides support to the nearly 4,000 immigrants from the Democratic Republic of Congo who live in Arizona.

Elie Mamboleo, the group’s president, moved to Arizona in late 1999. He wants to get Congolese more involved in social issues…and, to raise awareness of the Congolese immigrant population.

“The message that we are sending is unification," Mamboleo says. "That we believe in one another. We have to help each other and help our communities, Americans helping Americans.”

Many Congolese came to Arizona as refugees. Since the Central African nation declared independence from Belgium in 1960, it’s been marred by decades of violence. In 2010 alone, more than 3,000 refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo came to the United States.

Tresor, the pastor’s son, fled the Congo with his family as a child…first to Uganda, then to Arizona. They arrived in 2003. He’s all too aware of the country they left behind.

“There are families going days or maybe weeks without eating," Tresor said. "It’s definitely not the place to be. It’s like hell. You never know what’s coming the next day.”

The strife is particularly deadly in the Eastern part of Congo. Women are often subjected to sexual violence. Saafi is Pastor Guy’s wife. The women in her home country are often on her mind.

“I go to work, I eat. I’m okay," Saafi said. "The women of Congo: Oh my God. It’s [a] problem. I cry.”

Getting women involved is one of the main goals of the Congolese Community here in Arizona. Many of the other issues they focus on are probably pretty common among Arizonans: Legal immigration and safe neighborhoods, to name two.

Elie Mamboleo stressed the importance of civic engagement. “Congolese people in Arizona can impact our communities," he said.

For example, he’s pushing his friends to get out and vote in Phoenix’s upcoming mayoral election.

“This could be just a difference of a 100 or 200 votes. Two or three hundred Congolese people can make difference, can impact that election.”

The members of Mamboleo’s community are no longer in immediate physical danger…and he wants them to take advantage of that and work to better their new home.

“Together, we can build our beautiful Arizona," says Mamboleo.