By Anita J. Foster, Chief Communications Officer, American Red Cross
I took a recent poll on my personal Facebook page to ask my friends what their 12-year-old daughters were most concerned about in their daily lives. The answers were pretty much the same: hair styles, clothing trends, boys and being popular. Not one of my friends said that their 12-year old-daughter worried about where her next meal would come from, or how to hide from violence. None of them feared that their child would witness unimaginable human atrocities while being forced out of their own country. But for one 12-year-old little girl named Pascaline Mavugo, this was her life for nearly six years. Here is her story.
Twenty years ago, Pascaline, one of seven children, was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Born in a time of great violence across her country, her life had always been difficult; in spite of that, her parents encouraged their children to get a good education and dream of a better life. Doing just that, she and her two older siblings left for school one day in 2004. They had no possible way of knowing how their lives would be turned upside down before nightfall.
As the three siblings made their way home from school that day, fellow villagers were racing towards them, shouting that their parents had been murdered, and their family home, with four younger siblings inside, had been set on fire. The Mavugo family was a victim of the region’s ongoing violence, which has been responsible for 5.4 million deaths since 1998. For Pascaline and her siblings, they knew they had to either escape their village or be murdered themselves.
The three children, Pascaline, age 12, her sister, age 13 and their brother, age 15, never returned to their family home. They ran in the opposite direction with no food, no water and no idea where to go to be safe.
On foot, they walked for an unknown number of miles until they found themselves in the country of Burundi, which is bordered by Rwanda to the north, Tanzania to the south and east and their homeland of Congo to the west. They lived in the streets for a number of months. Her older brother scoured for their food each day while Pascaline worked as a housekeeper. Then, a man stumbled upon them and offered them a place to stay.
The man who had seemed like such a beacon in the night turned out to be a monster who raped Pascaline’s sister, who was, at the time, barely 15-years-old. After two years, they fled from Burundi and headed south to Tanzania. Picked up by the police on their way, the three children were sent to a refugee camp. Pascaline’s sister received much-needed medical attention for her wounds and all three of them had regular meals. They were happy to be there. For the next several years, they were shuffled from one camp to another; this was most unsafe for three children without parents.
Pascaline remembers vividly the day that immigration came to their refugee camp and sent them to a safe camp. They thought the refugee camp was where they would spend the rest of their lives, or stay at least until the violence in their homeland was contained. But nothing compared to the day that United States Immigration officials delivered the news that they would be leaving Africa and heading for America. Pascaline was 17-years-old.
Because she was still a minor, she was eligible for support from Catholic Charities. They worked to place her with a foster family in Crowley, Texas. To say that she encountered a culture shock would definitely be an understatement. She did not speak English, hadn’t been to school in years and was anything but your typical teenager. But her foster family got her into school and worked with her to build her confidence.
In 2011, thriving in her new life in America, Pascaline was able to think about more than just mere survival and her thoughts returned to the Congo. She never knew what happened to her four brothers who were too young to walk to school with her that day. Had they all died in the fire? What if they were still alive somewhere? Was there any way she could find them? This is where the American Red Cross enters her life.
In a conversation with Sharon Young, her caseworker at Catholic Charities, Pascaline asked if someone could find out what happened to her other siblings. Sharon knew just what to do, and in December of 2011, nearly one year after initiating a search for her family, Sharon got a call from Colin Wood with the American Red Cross in Dallas-Fort Worth. He had a message to deliver.
The American Red Cross initiated a search message that went from DFW to the other side of the world. Teams of Red Cross workers diligently searched for the four boys across many African nations. It is a painstaking and many times unsafe process to reunite loved ones separated in war-torn countries, but it’s important. So the Red Cross does everything necessary to try to bring peace of mind, even if the news is bad.
For Pascaline Mavugo, the Red Cross had a mixed message for her. Incredibly, three of her siblings had survived the fire and are currently living in a refugee camp in Uganda. Two of them are still minors. Today, Pascaline talks to her brothers about every two weeks, but she hasn’t seen them in eight years.
The pain on her face is undeniable as she speaks about her younger brothers. She wants to rush to them and bring them back with her, but she knows she can’t support them. She prays every day that they are safe and that on a day not that far away, she’ll be able to finish school, get a good job and bring her brothers to her.
After her harrowing journey, Pascaline hasn’t given up. Her parents taught her to get a good education and dream for a better life. At the tender age of 20, Pascaline is now in her final year of high school—an honorable feat considering she hadn’t been to school since she was 12 years old and didn’t speak English. When it comes to dreams, Pascaline has plenty. Her ultimate desire is to return to the Democratic Republic of Congo to rebuild her nation into a proud one. She wants to enter politics so that she can make changes that will benefit the people of her country, and she wants to reform the hospital system so that people get adequate care. And she adds, her Mom always wanted a doctor in the family.
For now, Pascaline lives with her American family, enjoying her favorite American food—the breakfast burrito. She loves her school, the American people and her job. But she longs for the day when she can return to her real “home” and live in peace.
As you tuck your young daughters into bed tonight and kiss them on the forehead, give an extra one for all of the kisses that Pascaline missed as a child. And let’s all hope for her that when she has a 12-year-old daughter of her own, whether here in America or back in Africa, that her daughter’s biggest concerns will be hair styles, clothing trends, boys and being popular. No young girl should have to worry about more than that.
Pascaline is one of the most amazing people that I’ve ever had the privilege to write about and we’re honored to have played a part in helping her find her brothers. We hope for the day that we can tell you about their reunion. For now, I’m grateful to have met her and been inspired by her. I hope you are too.
In 2011, the American Red Cross assisted more than 5,300 families trying to renew critical links between family members in the U.S. and around the world.
To contribute to the Red Cross’ mission to alleviate human suffering in the face of disaster, or to begin your story as a Red Cross volunteer, visit redcross.org.