In many ways, Valentine Awa is lucky. She and five of her eight children now live in Kentucky, where they can work, go to school and live in peace after years of terror in their native Congo and poverty in refugee camps in the Central African Republic.
But Awa says she can't be happy until her youngest child — a 7-year-old girl who is frequently ill — joins the family in Lexington.
Occasionally, Awa said, she is able to speak briefly by phone with the child she hasn't seen in years and with her two grown daughters, who are caring for her as best they can amid the poverty that grips that part of Africa.
"They say she cries, 'Mommy! Mommy!'" said Awa, a native French speaker who struggles with English. Awa said she sends them money each month from her modest earnings to help with living expenses.
Never miss a local story.
Awa, 50, is getting help from Kentucky Refugee Ministries and the office of U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, D-Ky., and from a French professor and her students at Transylvania University, where Awa works as a housekeeper.
Awa's case is more complicated than most. But, sadly, it is not an unusual circumstance among the more than 400 Congolese refugees who have been resettled in Central Kentucky.
"There are multiple examples of people who are trying to get their children here," said Barbara Kleine, who heads the Kentucky Refugee Ministries office in Lexington. "It's a painful process."
Many cases involve families separated by fighting or in refugee camps, Kleine said. Others stem from complicated family relationships, inconsistent answers given in immigration interviews, lack of documentation, and government bureaucracy on two continents.
Awa's saga began in early 2000, when the Democratic Republic of the Congo was torn by civil war, she said through an interpreter, recent Transylvania graduate Julianne Norman, who has taken up her cause.
Awa's husband was a retired soldier, and the military wanted to press him back into service. After he repeatedly refused, he was beaten. Ten days later, he died from his injuries. Awa and her children fled across the border into the Central African Republic, wandering four days through the forests to avoid capture. They finally reached a refugee camp, where there was little food or work.
After a year, they returned to Congo. The military men returned, telling Awa her sons would be conscripted because of her husband's refusal to rejoin the army. Again, the family fled Congo. And again, there was little food or work in the refugee camp.
This time, though, Awa said an elderly man promised to feed and protect her family in exchange for sex. That resulted in her youngest daughter, Amélie, who remained behind with him when Awa and her other daughters were granted refugee status and allowed to emigrate to the United States.
Amélie couldn't get refugee status because she was born in the Central African Republic, Awa said. Since the old man died in February, Awa has been trying to regain her daughter. But that could take years, said Lydia Curtz, who is working on her case for Kentucky Refugee Ministries.
It is a difficult case because Awa didn't initially declare her daughter, perhaps because of the circumstances of her birth. Several years have now passed, there is little documentation, and Awa made errors in her applications, Curtz said.
If the child is finally given permission to emigrate, Kentucky Refugee Ministries will pay to bring her here. But Awa must repay the loan, as she is doing for passage for herself and her children.
Awa's case has inspired Simonetta Cochis, a French professor at Transylvania, to see how her students might work with Kentucky Refugee Ministries to help Lexington's French-speaking Congolese refugees with longer-term settlement issues. That could include translation services, tutoring for children and even fund-raising for special circumstances, she said.
"They are coming from a different world into our world, which can be very complicated," Cochis said. "People feel so tremendously overwhelmed by what is going on in Africa. When you hear stories like Valentine's, how can you not want to help?"