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Institute for Public Service Reporting – Memphis


With six kids in college, Memphis refugee family prevails over politics

Refugee resettlement slows as legislators challenge governor

Ndayambje John prepares to wrestle an opponent from Ottawa University Jan. 25 in Clarksville, Arkansas. John won the match by technical fall 22-7. (University of the Ozarks)
Ndayambje John prepares to wrestle an opponent from Ottawa University in January 2020 in Clarksville, Arkansas. John won the match by technical fall 22-7. (University of the Ozarks)

Deniza was 11 when she first heard the name of the city where she and her family would find refuge.

“Mmemmphissss,” she said, closing her eyes and lifting the word up like a prayer. “We didn’t know anything about it, but there was just something about the sound of it. It sounded like home.”

Home is what Memphis became for Deniza, now 24, her parents, and her nine brothers and sisters.

The Ndikumana family was among 308 Burundi refugees who came to Tennessee in 2007.

In the dozen years since, only 311 other Burundi refugees have been resettled in Tennessee. Only 18 arrived last year.

Those numbers reflect the sharp decline in the overall number of refugees being resettled in Tennessee.

Faith-based agencies resettled 2,049 refugees in Tennessee in 2016 compared to 692 last year. Memphis received only 44 last year, the lowest number in more than two decades.

The numbers likely will be even lower this year.

Some Tennessee legislators are challenging Gov. Bill Lee’s decision to continue participating in the nation’s 40-year-old refugee resettlement program.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has capped refugee admissions to the U.S. at 18,000 in 2020, by far the lowest in more than half a century. The Obama administration set the cap at 110,000 in 2016, the Bush administration at 80,000 in 2008.

The declining numbers don’t reflect the natural and manmade disasters that continue to rack Burundi, a tiny land-locked country in the heart of Africa.

“Burundi’s refugees are being forgotten. The world needs to urgently help these refugees and the countries hosting them,” Catherine Wiesner wrote in the UN’s 2019 refugee report.

Like Rwanda, its neighbor to the north, Burundi has been haunted for decades by devastating bloodshed between two ethnic groups, majority Hutus and minority Tutsis.

Since the 1970s, hundreds of thousands of Burundis have died in or fled two genocides and endless cycles of civil war, famine and floods.

The current Burundi refugee crisis is in its fifth year. Nearly 300,000 Burundis are living in refugee camps in neighboring countries. More than half are children.

“If people with soft hearts could see what is happening in our country, in so many countries, especially to children, they would cry,” Paul Ndikumana said as he sat with his wife, Fabiola, and five of their daughters in their Hickory Hill home.

Paul and Fabiola spoke Kirundi, their country’s native language, as their daughters Necode, Neema and Deniza translated.

“My father said we are very, very lucky that we found so many people here who welcomed us,” said Necode, who was 13 when the family arrived in Memphis from a refugee camp in Tanzania.

“When my parents found out that we were leaving the camp and coming to Memphis, they prayed that God would give us strong friends and neighbors here,” Necode said. “That’s exactly what happened.”

‘A Moral Duty to Help’

Tennessee has been resettling refugees since the mid-1960s, long before Congress formalized the process in 1980.

But last fall, the Trump administration required state and local governments, for the first time, to opt into the refugee resettlement program.

A week before Christmas, Lee announced that Tennessee would continue to resettle refugees.

“The United States and Tennessee have always been … a shining beacon of freedom and opportunity for the persecuted and oppressed, particularly those suffering religious persecution,” Lee said.

The Ndikumana family pose a month after they arrived in Memphis in the summer of 2007. Bottom row (from left, bottom row) Elice, Salama, (middle row) Deniza, Neema, John, Necode, (top row) Thomas, Paul, Fabiola. (Ndikumana family photo)
The Ndikumana family pose a month after they arrived in Memphis in the summer of 2007. Bottom row (from left, bottom row) Elice, Salama, (middle row) Deniza, Neema, John, Necode, (top row) Thomas, Paul, Fabiola. (Ndikumana family photo)

Last month, Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris said refugees would continue to be welcome here.

“When we have the ability to act, we have a moral duty to help those in need, those in dire circumstances,” Harris said. “We should continue to do our part to provide safety and save the lives of children and families.”

Some Tennessee legislators are challenging those decisions.

Several legislators have introduced a bill that prohibits the governor from making any decision about resettling refugees unless authorized by a joint resolution of the General Assembly.

Others are pushing a bill that “requires this state to refuse to consent to receive any refugees for purposes of resettlement.”

Friends in Need

Necode was 4 years old when her parents fled their home in Burundi for the third time. She and many of her sisters and brothers grew up in a refugee camp in neighboring Tanzania.

“We had to line up every Wednesday to get food, so we started growing our own,” said Necode, now 26. “Yams. Corn. Sugar cane was our treat. I miss the food.”

She doesn’t miss the accommodations. At the camp, the family lived in a three-room house their father made from bricks and mud.

The three-bedroom rental house built with bricks and mortar in Binghampton they moved into in June 2007 seemed palatial by comparison.

Still, more space doesn’t mean less pressure.

Refugees receive stipends to cover their first three months of rent, utilities, food and medicine. It amounts to about $5 a day per refugee.

Neither Paul nor Fabiola spoke English. They didn’t have jobs. And they already owed the government more than $10,000 — the cost of nine airline tickets, which they were expected to begin repaying six months after their arrival.

“Refugees come to Memphis sort of blindfolded,” Paul Ndikumana said as Necode translated. “We can’t find our way alone. We need guides to help us.”

They found them.

They met Ruth Lomo, a refugee from Sudan who welcomed them to her Refugee Empowerment Program in Binghampton that provides after-school care and tutoring for children and language classes for parents.

They met Dr. Rick Donlon of Christ Community Health Services on Broad, who moved with his family to Binghampton in 1998 to be neighbors with the people he served at the medical clinic.

Donlon and his wife, Laurie, welcomed the Ndikumana family to their house church in Binghampton. Then they helped Paul and Fabiola find jobs and a house they could rent to own.

“Jesus commands us to welcome the stranger and to practice hospitality,” Donlon said.

At the Donlons, they met other house church members such as Erin Myers and John Nelson.

Myers and Nelson helped the family navigate MCS, MLGW, MATA, DMV and many other strange letter combinations in their new world.

“I learned so much from the family,” said Myers, who moved into the neighborhood herself and became a teacher. “Their courage. Their determination. Their gratitude.”

The Ndikumana children also learned from Myers, then a Rhodes College student, and John Nelson, then a UTHSC medical student.

“John and Erin are role models for our children,” Fabiola said. “Education is the key to unlocking your life.”

Parsing the Money

In 2017, the Tennessee legislature sued the federal government, claiming it was forcing the state to cover some of the costs of refugee resettlement.

The state attorney general declined to litigate the case, so legislators hired their own attorneys.

Federal district and appellate courts have rejected the case, but legislators are appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court.

A House subcommittee passed a resolution Feb. 11 that legislators hope will advance their case in court.

“No action should be taken by Governor Lee related to the federal refugee resettlement program that interferes with the authority and power of the General Assembly to expend public money,” the resolution declared.

Sponsors of the bill said they don’t know exactly how much public money the state is expending for refugees.

But a 2013 report commissioned by the state legislature found that state tax revenues from refugees are nearly double ($1.4 billion) state expenditures for refugees ($750 million) since 1990.

A 2017 study by researchers at the University of Notre Dame showed that an adult refugee who has lived in America for 20 years will have paid an average of $21,000 more in taxes than in government benefits received.

Annual studies by the Tennessee Office for Refugees show that refugees are more likely to be employed, pay taxes, own homes, start businesses and be in school than members of the general public.

Employers are “chasing down resettlement agencies because they know refugees work hard, they show up, they’ll work overtime,” said Holly Johnson, coordinator of the Tennessee Office for Refugees at Catholic Charities of Tennessee.

‘An Amazing Guy’

Ndayembaje John was born in a refugee camp in Tanzania. He was 7 when his parents brought him to Memphis.

“I remember my uncles and cousins in the camp saying don’t forget us,” said John, now 20. “I took it to heart. I knew I had to go to school and make something of myself.”

He did.

At Kingsbury High, John became one of the best wrestlers in the state and earned an athletic scholarship to college.

At Stardust Jiu-Jitsu, a Binghampton nonprofit that offers free jiu-jitsu and wrestling classes to kids from the neighborhood and the suburbs, John became a role model.

“He’s such an amazing guy, and such a leader,” said Lucas Trautman, Stardust’s founder and a former high school wrestling coach. “He’s always eager to learn and he never quits.”

At the University of the Ozarks, John, 20, is a sophomore and a starting member of the wrestling team. This weekend, he takes his 23-9 record to the conference championships.

“This is my sport. It teaches me about life,” says Ndayembaje John, whose name means “I Praise God” in Kirundi.

“When I can’t beat an opponent, I go back to the mat and work harder and work on my strategy. It’s not just about wins and losses. It’s how you bounce back.”

One in five Burundi children are out of school. Not the Ndikumana children. All 10 of them are in school, including John and five others in college.

Thomas, 28, who was born in a refugee camp in Tanzania, is a student at St. Ambrose University in Iowa.

Necode, 26, is a nursing student at Arkansas State University.

Deniza, 24, Neema, 22, and Elice, 18, are health science students at the University of Memphis.

Salama, 16, the last child in her family born in a refugee camp, is at Southwind High.

Veronica, 11, Susana, 9, and Amy, 5 — all born here — are students at Power Center Academy.

“No matter where you are,” Paul Ndikumana said, “you must pray for your children. You must have them in church. And you must show them that education is important.”

‘Biblical Mandate’

The refugee resettlement program is tightly controlled by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the U.S. State Department.

The federal government screens a tiny fraction of refugees who qualify for resettlement, deciding whom to allow in and where to place them. Interviews and background checks typically takes years.

The resettlement process focuses on keeping families together and placing them in communities that can help them.

Faith-based agencies such as World Relief in Memphis contract with the government to manage the programs locally, often working with churches and other nonprofit organizations.

The youngest Ndikumana girls, all born in the U.S., pose in a pumpkin patch in October 2019. They are, from left, Amy, Veronica and Susana. (Ndikumana family photo)
The youngest Ndikumana girls, all born in the U.S., pose in a pumpkin patch in October 2019. They are, from left, Amy, Veronica and Susana. (Ndikumana family photo)

The refugee resettlement program has found broad support from hundreds of evangelical churches across the state.

A week before Lee announced his decision to continue accepting refugees, he received a letter from 650 evangelical leaders across the state urging him to do so.

“Over the past decade, roughly 12,700 individuals from various countries have been resettled in Tennessee,” the letter read.

“Regardless of their background, refugees are human beings made in God’s image, with inherent dignity and potential, and we have been blessed by their arrival in Tennessee; we desire to continue to be able to extend love to these new neighbors as an exercise of our Christian faith.”

Lee said his support for the program comes from his own faith and personal experiences with refugees here and abroad.

As a private citizen, Lee has traveled with Christian ministries to refugee camps in Uganda, Kenya and Iraq.

Lee and his wife, Maria, have worked with church groups to help Kurdish and Iraqi refugees in Nashville.

“My commitment to these ideals is based on my faith, personally visiting refugee camps on multiple continents, and my years of experience ministering to refugees here in Tennessee,” Lee wrote in a December letter to state legislative leaders.

It’s “a moral obligation and for me because of my faith and biblical mandate,” Lee said last month.

‘It’s a God Thing’

The Lees attend Grace Church, a nondenominational congregation near Nashville.

The Ndikumanas attend Grace Church of the Nazarene in Memphis.

“The Ndikumana family are an absolute blessing to our church,” said Mark Lancaster, Grace Nazarene’s senior pastor. “We love them dearly. I’m so thankful that they are a part of the Grace Family. They are such giving family.”

The Ndikumanas attended church services at their refugee camp in Tanzania, where they spent a decade in a teeming refugee camp in waiting to be chosen, vetted, approved and moved. All 10 members of the family are now U.S. citizens.

“We prayed and put everything in God’s hands,” Fabiola said.

“God has blessed us to be here in Memphis, in America,” Paul said.

As her parents spoke, 5-year-old Amy darted in and out of the living room.

One in 16 Burundi children dies before their fifth birthday — a rate 10 times higher than an American child.

Half of Burundi’s child refugees suffer from stunting due to malnutrition, the highest rate in the world, according to the 2019 Global Childhood Report.

One in five are out of school. One in four are engaged in child labor.

Amy is healthy and happy. She lives with her parents and older sisters in a five-bedroom house on a cul-de-sac in Hickory Hill.

Her parents are gainfully employed at ServiceMaster.

They work while she goes to school or plays.

”It’s a God thing that we are here,” Neema said as she held Amy on her lap. “When people in the camp heard we were chosen, they said God must be on your side. We think God is on every side.”

David Waters’ reporting on issues affecting Memphis children is funded, in part, by a grant from the Urban Child Institute. UCI has no prior knowledge of topics Waters chooses nor is it involved in any aspect of the editorial process.

This story first appeared at under an exclusive use agreement with The Institute. Photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.

Written By

David Waters is Distinguished Journalist in Residence and assistant director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

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