Congolese BackgrounderDOWNLOAD FULL PDF
This backgrounder contains historical, political, and cultural information intended to cultivate a general understanding of Congolese who are arriving to the U.S. The ongoing crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo is complex and spans decades. CORE produced this backgrounder to aid U.S. Resettlement Agencies (RAs) and their local affiliates to provide culturally appropriate Cultural Orientation (CO) and other services to newly arrived Congolese. The information provided is intended as guidance and does not represent the needs and challenges of all Congolese. As such, resettlement staff are encouraged to adapt their services as appropriate. Download the full PDF version of the Congolese Backgrounder for additional details and information not included on this page.
This page was last updated July 7th, 2022.
The ongoing refugee crisis in the DRC is complex and spans decades. UNHCR has described the situation in the DRC as “one of the world’s most complex, challenging, protracted, and forgotten crises.” Human rights violations in the DRC include physical mutilation, killings, sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), arbitrary arrest, and detention in inhuman conditions.
Photo Credit: Andrew Obserstadt/IRC
The crisis started in 1996 when Rwanda invaded the DRC in pursuit of perpetrators of the 1994 Rwanda genocide who had taken refuge in the eastern part of the DRC. Years of conflict followed, including the first and second Congo wars in 1996 and 1998. Although a peace accord was signed in 2003, unrest still plagues the country, as violence has spread to previously unaffected areas, specifically the Great Lakes region, causing new migrants to join Congolese refugees from previous waves of violence. This displacement has a dramatic impact on first asylum countries which are already struggling to meet the needs of the displaced.
Congolese refugees’ countries of first asylum are usually: Angola, Burundi, The Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, The United Republic of Tanzania, and Zambia. Most Congolese refugees will have resided in refugee camps or in urban centers. The region can be unstable for citizens and refugees alike, and many refugee camps are full or above capacity. Basic services are limited or unavailable giving rise to concerns regarding safety, water access, food security and nutrition, health access, and provision of basic needs. Restrictions on freedom of movement also hinder the ability of individuals to seek employment or integrate into local communities. UNHCR has reported increased instances of SGBV across first-asylum countries. Displaced individuals can also face discrimination and xenophobia from other refugees and/or local groups.
Photo Credit: Democratic Republic of Congo, Map No. 4007, Rev. 13, Oct. 2020, UNITED NATIONS
Languages and Interethnic Considerations
While the official language of the DRC is French, there are more than 200 ethnic groups that speak over 250 languages in the country. The Banyamulenge, Hutus, and Tutsis speak the same central Bantu language, Kinyarwanda, with the Banyamulenge speaking a sub-language of Kinyarwanda called Kinyamulenge. Other Congolese refugees will know the Bantu language of Lingala, which is widely spoken in western DRC. Many Congolese refugees also speak Swahili (sometimes called Kiswahili), and it is often regarded as the second native language of the DRC. Even those who are not native speakers of Swahili can often communicate in it; thus, Swahili can sometimes function as the language of communication between individuals who have no other language in common.
Photo Credit: Olivia Acland/IRC
Due to the variety of languages spoken and the long history of interethnic tensions in the DRC, Resettlement Agency (RA) staff and community partners will need to be sensitive when navigating client relationships with case managers and interpreters. For instance, certain ethnic groups have experienced discrimination in the DRC, including Banyamulenge, Congolese Tutsi, and Hutu. Resettlement staff should ask clients’ preference for both language and, if possible, ethnic group when securing an interpreter. Furthermore, resettlement staff should work with interpreters in advance to help prepare interpretation for topics that will be discussed with individuals communicating in their second, third, or even fourth language.
Photo Credit: Andrew Obserstadt/IRC
Delivery of Cultural Orientation
In this section, learn more about effectively delivering Cultural Orientation messages when working with Congolese refugees. Download the Full PDF version of the Congolese Backgrounder for a more detailed and contextualized information on these topics and other information.
The DRC has an unreliable banking system and many Congolese adults may be unfamiliar with formal banking services. As a result, Congolese clients may have limited knowledge of banking, financial planning, and budgeting
- Consider a field trip to a bank and involve a community guest speaker to explain the U.S. banking system as part of CO. This will assist Congolese clients in understanding and navigating a new, unfamiliar financial system.
- Be mindful that budgeting tools can be overwhelming to understand which may lead to disengagement by the client. Use images and pictures to help mitigate challenges clients may face due to low literacy and illiteracy, and to increase understanding of the U.S. banking system and budgeting.
Congolese need support as they adjust to U.S. cultural norms. Some adjustments are easy to support while others may take time, patience, and repetition.
- Discuss the importance of timeliness, in particular, focusing on U.S. norms about arriving to appointments and work on time. Make connections between developing time management skills and the role this plays in building respect and trust with others.
- Facilitate discussions about changes in family dynamics and the impact on children, along with ways to navigate family conflict that may arise while adjusting to U.S. culture. (See CORE’s Cultural Adjustment Activity Bank)
- Encourage Congolese clients to build and rely on strong social networks within the Congolese-American community for support as they adjust to life in the U.S. Ethnic Community Based Organizations and religious institutions may offer supportive environments for building these networks.
The DRC education system is restrained by low coverage and poor-quality instruction. Access to and availability of education programs in refugee camps also varies. Overall, resettlement staff may find that many Congolese clients are not literate upon arrival to the U.S. and have prior educational experiences that are different from the U.S.
- Utilize the creation of (and later reference to) the family’s resettlement plan as an opportunity to discuss and reinforce key CO messages connected to education and achieving self-sufficiency
- Use picture-based materials in the delivery of CO and in other communication which has proven successful in increasing client understanding and retention of information.
- Leverage potential client interest in the value of education and eagerness to see their children succeed while discussing the fundamental differences in the DRC and U.S. school systems. (see CORE’s Education Activity Bank)
Congolese refugees’ formal work experience and skills will vary, from professionals in urban areas to farmers or herders from rural areas. Additionally, often women, along with individuals who have spent long periods in refugee camps, have limited to no formal work experience. However, Congolese cases can bring factors such as entrepreneurial resourcefulness and a strong work ethic to their employment search in the U.S.
- Set clear expectations with Congolese refugees on employment goals and timelines. This includes identifying the types of entry-level jobs that are available, mitigating childcare barriers, and emphasizing the need for all employable adults to work to achieve self-sufficiency. Additionally, leverage long-term goals, such as starting a business or returning to school, when discussing early employment and building language proficiency.
- Use a strengths-based approach and discuss the skills individuals may have that are transferrable to a job in the U.S. For example, draw on experiences from agricultural work such as planting and management of crops and food preparation.
- Facilitate an open and honest dialogue on traditional gender roles in the context of employment and emphasize the need for all employable adults to work to achieve self-sufficiency. The creation of, and reference to, a resettlement plan and household budget will assist refugees to understand the importance of full employment.
When working with Congolese clients to navigate healthcare in the U.S., RAs will need to take into account a variety of factors. In addition to considering the list of items below, resettlement staff should also refer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Congolese Health Profile for more details.
- The lasting political and economic collapse of the DRC dramatically impacted the country’s healthcare system and the majority of Congolese have little or no access to healthcare services.5
- Western medicine is generally accepted and practiced although traditional medicine is often used when modern healthcare services are not available or affordable. Some Congolese hold strong animistic beliefs which may bundle physical, mental, and spiritual well-being into ritualistic practices related to the natural world.
- Many arriving Congolese refugees will have witnessed, experienced, and survived conditions that may have impacted their psychological health. The psychological impact of witnessing or experiencing extreme violence can manifest itself in different ways like insomnia, alcohol or drug abuse, high stress, anxiety, anger, and depression.
- Among the Congolese, there is little understanding of mental health.
- Be prepared to support Congolese clients in understanding the complex U.S. healthcare system. Some RAs have used healthcare navigators or volunteers to accompany Congolese refugees to appointments or to the pharmacy, and to assist in understanding health insurance and medical bills, with successful results.
- Demystify and destigmatize mental health services when discussing health and cultural adjustment. For example, asking interpreters to replace the term “mental health” with “emotional health” or “services to address emotional well-being” and replacing “therapy” with “counseling” may also be helpful. Partnering with a local mental health service provider can assist with training resettlement staff to destigmatize mental health services and link Congolese clients to needed services.
- Utilize a variety of community partnerships to address health concerns. (See CORE’s Promising Practice Including Guests from the Community.)
- Discuss health concerns, including those related to mental health, with Congolese clients early in the resettlement period. The misunderstanding of, and lack of education on, mental health has led newly arrived Congolese clients to inaccurately complete mental health screenings as they are unfamiliar with the signs of mental health distress. By providing education on mental health early in the resettlement period, clients may be more willing to open up about their issues and receive referrals to appropriate services.
In refugee camps and urban environments overseas, Congolese home life is likely very different from what they can expect to encounter in the U.S. Differences can include the physical space, responsibility of maintenance and care, and amenities within the home. In terms of amenities, due to water scarcity, Congolese may be unfamiliar with the idea of running water in the home, and many will be introduced to an oven and stove for the first time as most cooking in the DRC is done using an outdoor fire.
- Discuss with clients how they cared for their homes previously. Then, together identify which habits they may need to change to keep their new home clean, and how new appliances or household items can assist them in doing certain daily tasks.
- Use repetitive demonstrations throughout the R&P process to assist Congolese clients’ knowledge retention in using appliances and other household amenities that are new to them. At the end of such demonstrations, provide visual aids that clients can refer to as needed. Note that some RAs report that using volunteers or interns to conduct in-home demonstrations can be an effective strategy.
Congolese refugees may also have experienced a lack of access to clean water and basic sanitation facilities in the DRC and first asylum countries. Congolese clients may also have a lack of familiarity with home cleaning and hygiene products, and bathroom fixtures. As such, resettlement staff should be prepared to engage with clients directly and respectfully around expectations of hygiene practices in the U.S.
- Make connections between proper hygiene practices and workplace and social norms. (see Hygiene section of CORE’s Health Activity Bank)
- Conduct in-home demonstrations to assist clients. A discussion using the actual cleaning and/or hygiene products coupled with take-home visual materials can greatly assist clients in identifying the appropriate use of products and amenities.
Due to both local and federal government corruption in the DRC, along with the possible spread of misinformation from individuals they know, Congolese clients may have a sense of mistrust toward government-funded organizations like RAs. RA staff, volunteers and interns, and community partners should take time to build trust and rapport with Congolese clients, acknowledging that this process may take time.
- Utilize a whole office approach to CO, where all staff take part in delivering consistent messaging about the role of the RA, as well as other CO topics as needed. This will ensure clients hear the same messages from multiple individuals with whom they have begun to build trust.
- Facilitate connections with local Congolese or, as appropriate, religious communities. Such communities can be a tremendous resource and partner for RAs.
- Apply a trauma-informed lens when working with cases around addressing questions and challenges. For instance, if a case refuses to participate in an RA service, rather than becoming frustrated or forcing the issue, consider if the choice is a product of trauma and, if appropriate, what other resettlement staff or other resources might be available to assist the client or address the challenge.
For many Congolese refugees, the U.S. legal system is their first experience interacting with a formal judicial system.
- Spend more time discussing housing regulations, specifically occupancy laws, tenant rights and responsibilities, and leases as legal agreements. (See CORE’s Housing Activity Bank for ideas)
- Use community partnerships and guests, such as police officers, firefighters, and landlords to emphasize information and build community trust. (Learn more in CORE’s Promising Practice: Including Guests from the Community.)
The following are additional resources that may assist resettlement staff in delivering Cultural Orientation.
- Activity Bank (organized by CO Topic)
- Cultural Orientation Objectives and Indicators
- Promising Practice: Including Guests from the Community
- Promising Practice: Delivering Gender-Segregated Cultural Orientation Sessions
- Settle In Website (English and Swahili)
- Strengths-based Approach(poster and online course)
- 5 Tips to Make your Hygiene Lessons Shine
- Whole-Office Approach to Cultural Orientation
- BRYCS: Raising Young Children in a New Country: Supporting Early Learning and Healthy Development
- BRYCS: Refugee Portal: Housing Resources for Newcomers
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Congolese Refugee Health Profile
- Switchboard: Getting and Staying Well for Congolese Refugees
- Switchboard: Trauma-Informed Care in Case Management