Key to a Refugee's Upward Mobility: The English Language

Jun 1, 2017

Claude Douhendwa, a refugee who fled the violence of the Congolese civil war, has found a full-time job at a factory making plastics in Springfield.
Credit KSMU

Claude Douhendwa is making his way through the buffet line at his church in Springfield. He made a good living as a woodworker in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

But just as he was establishing himself as a young adult, varying ethnic and political groups were sparring for power.

Claude, his wife, and their two young children found themselves caught in the crossfire.  They fled to a nearby forest, where they hid from rebel fighters.  

“When we heard they [were] coming, we [left]. We just had to leave our moms…when we came back, what we [saw] was terrible.  All the men were put in the toilets. All...we don’t have a sewer system. We had a big [septic] tank for the school. They put all the men in there, inside. It was very terrible,” Douhendwa said.

Claude believed his life was in danger, so he fled with his family to Kenya, and applied for refugee status in the United States.  Like most refugees, he left almost everything behind.

When refugees arrive in the US, they are placed with a government contracted agency that helps them get settled. That includes finding a job.

That contract generally runs out after 90 days. At that point, they’re expected to fly on their own two wings.

Claude speaks English, a skill that many refugees here don’t initially have.

Megan Short of the Missouri Career Center in Springfield says the Ozarks has fewer jobs for non-English speakers than you might find in more major metropolitan areas. But she said technology allows people who don’t speak much English to use translating devices in some jobs.

“When you start looking at a little bit higher paying jobs that you’re more in a management role, it is more important to be able to speak directly with the people that you’re overseeing,” Short said.

Ramona George oversees the English language classes at Ozarks Technical Community College. The classes are free to refugees, she says.

“One of the most remarkable things about refugees from the Congo is the diversity of skill  level that they have regarding English—their English speaking ability. We have individuals who have never spoken English before, and are therefore unfamiliar with the English alphabet,” George said.

On the other end of the spectrum, she said, some are ready to begin taking college classes immediately.

She said one Congolese woman had never learned how to hold a pencil.

Other barriers to solid, long-term employment for refugees in the Ozarks are transportation, child care and knowledge of local culture.

Claude Dougendwa is one of the local success stories.  He’s landed a job at a factory,  and he’s renting a house in Springfield. 

“I’m a producer, because I use a machine. The machine brings the boxes, and you do the finishing,” Douhendwa said.

He’s only been in the United States for 10 months.  And he’s already turning his attention to helping other refugees find work and begin their new lives in the United States.

Since the civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is ongoing, and since Springfield is a designated spot for Congolese refugees, he’ll likely have his work cut out for him.

Note:  this is the third and final part in the series "Resettling," reported and produced by journalism students in Missouri State University's International Reporting class.