Nancy Mbaya's mother holds a copy of her 16-year-old daughter's birth certificate. It is a piece of paper that is proof to the world that she has a right to hold her daughter in her arms again. It is a talisman Beatrice Mbaya holds as some kind of promise that war, greed, chaos and unspeakable crimes can be overcome by fierce love, steel will and well-meaning, if slow-moving, bureaucracy.
The certificate itself was some mean feat. Left behind when Beatrice fled her home and her homeland, it had to be retrieved from a small town's municipal cache in the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo by Josephine Feza, Beatrice's sister, a widow who herself had to travel with four children from Lubumbashi, some 400 miles away.
Beatrice Mbaya lives in Lexington, nearly 8,000 miles away from Nancy and Feza. She has not seen either of them for a decade. None knew the others were alive until three years ago.
In the three years since Mbaya has left Africa, no document has been left unfiled and no official has been left unpetitioned in an attempt to get Nancy out of Congo.
Never miss a local story.
Her visa is ready. According to documents in hand, her departure was approved by the U.S. government in March and again in September. But it appears as if the Congolese government continues to thwart Nancy's departure.
Lacking a definitive exit visa, Nancy has lived for the past six months, more or less, on the streets of a city that is home to 15,000 homeless, ravaged and savaged children.
Mbaya, now 40, had managed to save two of her children from hell. She is willing to do as much to save a long-lost third.
'My life was almost over'
Beatrice Mbaya had lived a quiet, middle-class life in the Katanga province in southeastern Zaire. She had married at 20 and had three small children in quick succession. Her husband ran a transportation business and had a shop that bought and sold gold.
They had much to look forward to.
The war in her country was somewhere else. She had not heard a gunshot in her life until 1997, when the rebels, trying to overthrow long-time dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, had come into her town on Kongolo and looted shops.
But there had been no killing and, after regular folks had retreated into the bush for a few days, things had returned to normal for them.
Except that Mobutu was toppled by a new president, Laurent Kabila, and the nation's name was restored to the Democratic Republic of Congo.
It was, she thought, a revolution about wealth and resources and power. This part of Africa was then and still is one of most richly bestowed anywhere on earth. Its fertile terrain regularly brings forth crops of coffee, sugar, rice, rubber, cotton and tea. Under that land lies diamonds, oil, uranium, copper and gold.
Throughout the years, there are few countries within Africa and without that haven't coveted it.
Peace, if it had ever existed within her country, did not last. In 1998, Congolese rebel forces and armies made up of six nations moved in.
Christmas Eve 1999 dawned on "Africa's first world war." The armies that had allied to oust Kabila had taken Mbaya's city, and the DRC's government forces decided to throw bombs at her neighborhood to get it back.
It was 9 p.m. when she heard shooting coming from the side of the house.
James, Beatrice's husband, took their 6-year-old daughter, Nancy, and 3-year-old Rafael in his arms and told his wife to run. He took the back door. She took the front door, heading toward her mother's house and in the direction of her 7-year-old son, Frank.
On Christmas Day, Beatrice walked with others away from her city. She could not find her husband. Directed by some soldiers to travel the bush roads along the almost 3,000-mile-long Congo River, she was told it would be safer to get herself to a certain village.
It was a trap.
"They did very bad things to me," says the soft-spoken Mbaya. "They thought we were being used by the other side. We were just civilians."
Still, they were tortured, the women in ways most unthinkable. Hidden under the brush so no one could see them, the women remained imprisoned.
They were soldiers "from my own country," she says, still in disbelief. "I wanted to die. You think you are dying, but you don't die."
She says that she was not a religious woman before, but God did not desert her there. She called upon him, and he came to her.
"You trust, you pray. I asked to see my children again."
Suffering from malaria and other maladies, eventually, a soldier came to her and explained how to cross the river, on which side to walk and whom to trust.
She did as she was told, walking for hours on end.
You sleep where you can, she says. You eat what you find.
She did find the solitary old woman in the village whom she'd been told about, and that woman got Mbaya to a refugee camp where she was given a blanket and food.
"All I wanted to do was to get to Frank," says Mbaya. "My life was almost over. I got on a paid transport to look for my mama, and I found her. She had him."
Mbaya tried to heal and imagine how to get her family to safety. By now, Mbaya had another child, Walid, who was born with club feet.
Then her mother died and, suddenly, they were all on the street.
"My mama had told me to get to a refugee camp," and so Mbaya waded into the street without money and without papers and convinced truck drivers to take them, kilometer by kilometer, day by day, to the Zambian border.
"I lived in fear. I traveled in fear," she says. "You don't remember what life without fear is like."
There was one driver who took them to a church and another who directed them to a group of fishermen, all of whom provided her safe journey to the next stop.
She also saw the group of mothers and children in a truck a few kilometers in front of her arrested while she was not. She has no explanation for her ability to sidestep defeat when her children were with her.
"This is why I love God," she says, "and really trust him."
When she got to the United Nations-run refugee camp, she says, she spent three months in interrogations. It was there that she found out James and Rafael had been killed by rebels.
At the camp, they were at last fed, and she finally slept. She had Frank. She had baby Walid, whom she would have to carry long after he should have walked for himself. And she waited to see what the world wanted to do with them.
They spent the next few years in U.N. refugee camps in Zambia and Zimbabwe. By the end of 2004, when various rebel groups had continued to massacre civilians in the DRC and Beatrice had no news from any of the rest of her family, the death toll for the five-year civil war had risen to 3.8 million.
Finding a blessing
In 2006, the United Nations sent Mbaya and her children to the United States, three of just 16,000 Congolese allowed into the country that year. The majority of applications for resettlement to the United States are made to U.S. embassies in foreign countries and are reviewed by employees of the State Department. In most cases, refugee status has been reviewed by the U.N. high commissioner for refugees and recognized by the host country. For the Mbayas, the United States decided that, because of the violence done to her by her own countrymen, Beatrice could not be repatriated or integrated into a refugee community in an adjoining country. Resettling her to a third country, such as the United States, was the best option.
Agencies within the United States were ready to welcome her.
Mbaya is considered a refugee with permanent residency status. She is allowed to apply for citizenship next year, which she will do. She was connected with Kentucky Refugee Ministries, which eventually hired her as a caseworker.
"This country," she says through tears, "has been a blessing for me."
She says she has no intention of ever leaving the commonwealth.
Frank, Walid and new daughter Joyce were healthy, and it was time to begin, in earnest, to make the family whole.
The U.S. Embassy in Kinshasa began to ask for documentation for Nancy, whom Mbaya had asked to bring to Kentucky. From conversations with her sister, Josephine, Mbaya learned that Nancy had walked 55 miles to get to her aunt's house after her father and brother were killed. There, she helped to survive by farming the land after her uncle died of malaria because of a medicine shortage.
Nancy's schooling was sporadic. From 2006 on, Mbaya has sent money every month to help the Feza family.
Josephine made sure the birth certificate was found in a city hall 400 miles away and posted to Kentucky straight away.
When word came in March that Nancy's visa had been approved, Mbaya sent $2,000 to relocate her to Kinshasa, to a seemingly reputable family who agreed to take the teenager in. Unfortunately, the family took the money and, when they decided to relocate, decided against taking Nancy with them. Word again came in September that Nancy was on her way, and Mbaya arranged a temporary two-week stay with a family. When the visa hit snags, the second family declined an extension, and Nancy was again homeless.
Mother and daughter communicate only when the cell phone that Beatrice bought her daughter works. Otherwise, Beatrice writes pleading letters to the ambassador asking for help. Her own visa is specific. She can travel anywhere in the world but to the DRC, so she cannot go get Nancy.
She can go back in a year, when she is a U.S. citizen.
But that is another Christmas away.
In the meantime, she is mother to three thriving young American kids. Frank is a senior at Henry Clay High School, a soccer standout likely to earn a college athletic scholarship. Walid, 9, has had surgery at Shriner's Hospitals for Children in Lexington, which has enabled him to walk perfectly. He is happy to show you his scars and his abilities. Joyce, 5, is ebullient, fluent in English, French, Swahili and snowman making.
Mbaya's is a life spent offering God endless thanks and imploring Him for one last small kindness.
On Wednesday, thousands of miles away, 16-year-old Nancy Mbaya will have yet another meeting with the U.S. Embassy in Kinshasa.
In Lexington, with stacks of correspondence and official documentation in hand, Nancy's mother waits.