There are moments of our life when we feel so blessed to be a certain place at a certain time because we sense that we are seeing, hearing, and experiencing is a sacred moment in a family's life. Then, too, that experience changes us because we were present and a witness to this sacred space and time.
Last week I had the opportunity to capture images of a Congolese family being reunited after 11 years apart from their son. They last time they saw Jonas; their son, he was little 6 year old boy. And when he walked through the giant exit doors at O'hare's international terminal with his IOM bag and a few pieces of luggage to start a new chapter in his life he was a tall, thin 17 year old young man. The welcome celebration right there in the O'hare airport was a beautiful reunion after years of struggle and so many prayers relying that God would provide for them and bring them together again. I learned much from my new friends that night.
Bunga's and his family's story is one that includes pain, loss, and joy. His smile is inviting and brings you in and as soon as you meet him you feel welcome in his home. Bunga was a well known soccer players and a community leader in DRC. When the President of the DRC canceled the elections to continue to remain in power Bunga protested. At this protest he was beaten and taken to a detention facility where he was interrogated and forced to watch the torture of loved ones. He was eventually released and escaped to a close by country- by foot, car, and even canoe. Fleeing this persecution and the murder of his brother Bunga and his wife and youngest son; Mayo fled to Nigeria as refugees where they stayed for 8 years. While there they survived a Boko Haram attack, as he shared at the recent Spotlight on Congo event held by World Relief Dupage/Aurora, as an image flashed on the screen of Bunga standing amidst rubble that was their bedroom at a local church where he worked. They were finally granted refugee status and permission to relocate to the U.S. in 2013. They were never able to get their son Jonas and another child; a daughter, Mati safe passage to Nigeria. The family of 3 arrived in Chicagoland about 2 1/2 years ago and have been working since then to bring Jonas and Mati here along with the dedicated staff at World Relief Dupage/Aurora's Immigrant Legal Services. Because Jonas is still a minor permission for him to join the family came first but the family is still prayering and petitioning on her behalf that Mati will be granted permission to join their family soon. Dan and Karyn are volunteers with World Relief that lived in Africa for many years and became welcoming friends that helped Bunga's family adjust to life in America. They, of course, were present to see this reunion many years in the making. Seeing their natural connection is like seeing family members or old friends together and it is obvious this was built over the last years in doing life together.
After the emotional reunion at the airport we all were invited back to the family's apartment to enjoy some hospitality, singing, and prayer thanking God for all He has done. Bunga's wife Hortense served us cookies and juice and we toasted to Jonas' homecoming to a new and different home but one that includes his family. Their youngest son showed Jonas to the room they will share that was decorated with handmade signs and Mayo was excited to show off his hard earned wrestling medals from high school. A high school that Jonas will join him at in a just a few days. Bunga sat on his couch in Carol Stream millions of miles away from his homeland in DRC praising God and thanking Him for all He had done for their family. A family who has seen, survived, and triumphed through so much pointed to the good things and remembered the difficult and after singing in English and his native tongue Bunga sat with his head in his hands and said, "I need to fear God because no one is like Him. I don't know one day I will be with my child again. I don't know. I don't know what to say. Thank you God- what can I say to Him? Thank you God and thank you Karyn and Dan and thank you for World Relief. And to to my God thank you."
It was a day I will not soon forget. I heard more of their story and stories are powerful. This story is one of the voices that make up the vast and diverse refugee community. A community we can be blessed by, partner with, and stand alongside. Here are some of my favorite moments from the day Jonas joined his family.