Christopher, Nadine and their children escaped violent regime forces as refugees in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and survived a harrowing journey through refugee camps to find a home here in Appleton.
Christopher’s family was murdered before his eyes while he was nearly beaten to death for the music he wrote addressing the rape and torture of women, which led to the humanitarian crisis of “street children” who were homeless and without parents in his native Congo. Taking exception to his songs of freedom and protest, violent forces sought to silence him and his music.
Nadine’s story of trauma and tragedy is equally heartbreaking, as she witnessed the murder of her father at the age of 13 and then endured years of violence unimaginable to many of us in this country. Years later, she met Christopher and the two married and started a family – all while living in refugee camps. After decades in these camps, their family found their way to Appleton with their three sons through the help of World Relief Fox Valley. This summer they also welcomed baby Isabelle, their first child born in the United States.
I met Christopher and Nadine while I was working for the city of Appleton. I introduced them to Cory Chisel, Jon Wheelock and Adriel Denae, and magic happened immediately as Christopher was inspired to write more music. With Cory and Adriel’s help, he was soon performing. His first public performance was a concert to welcome refugees at The Refuge where he performed with his entire family, Cory, Adriel and other Refuge artists-in-residence sponsored by World Relief. He also performed at Mile of Music in a concert of his own, and again at Lawrence Memorial Chapel’s “Songs Before You Go” where he received a standing ovation. Christopher is currently writing music for his first album.
This past August, Adriel and I were by Nadine’s side when she gave birth to beautiful baby Isabelle. It felt like a turning point in our relationships and we all became bonded as family. While in labor, Nadine began to call me mama and from then on, both Nadine and Christopher call me by that special title and have appointed me grandmother to their children. It is not lost on me that this role of honor has been bestowed upon me only because this family lost all of their own family of origin in unspeakable ways.
There are so many joys I and many others have experienced with this family, too many to list in this short article, but I will highlight one story. Working with the Appleton Housing Authority, we were able to help them apply and interview for a new home. They immediately qualified because they not only escaped government oppression, but this family of six had been living in a tiny, near dilapidated two-bedroom apartment for far too long. The joy expanded when we found out that they would be moving into a brand new home made possible by Appleton Housing Authority and the Appleton Area School District. It was built by Appleton high school students as part of a class.
When Christopher, Nadine and the children moved into this home, their neighbors immediately came over with their own children to welcome them to the neighborhood. As I left the house last weekend, I was overwhelmed with delight as I watched the boys playing soccer with the other children. Since their arrival to Appleton, they had not played outside their home due to safety concerns and the lack of children in their old neighborhood. I smiled and waved as Nadine held baby Isabelle close to her and the sounds of children laughing and playing together could be heard as I drove away.
On Sunday, October 30, Appleton Housing Authority held an open house for the neighbors to stop by and meet Nadine and Christopher. The yard was filled with wonder as neighbors embraced and showered them with food and gifts to welcome them home. It was an afternoon filled with laughter and tears of joy. Christopher sang a song called “I Have a Dream” about an orphan boy he met in the Congo who lived through similar horrors to Christopher; not a day goes by that he does not think of that boy. He couldn’t hold back the tears as he expressed his gratitude for all he now has in life and for all who were present at the home for this warmest of house warmings.
Many times lately, I have questioned the direction of this country, the vitriol, and the divisiveness. But it is in times like these that I remember what we are capable of doing. We are capable of welcoming and including newcomers at our tables, into our homes and neighborhoods, and into our hearts.
Text: Kathy Flores
Photos: Justus Poehls