Out of Africa, into the Heartland

Richard and his family pose for a photo.

Itâ??s the controlled chaos that reminds Richard Yampana of his home over 7,000 miles away. Itâ??s the gathering around the table with peanuts, homemade beignets and orange juice. Itâ??s his native language filling his ears and his soul. Itâ??s the company at the table. Theyâ??re his brothers and sisters, united not in blood, but in a shared heritage. Itâ??s a piece of Africa, the Congo specifically, thatâ??s found a home in the Heartland. So how does a man, from the Congo, a country torn apart by war, economic turmoil and political corruption decide to begin a new life in rural Missouri?

â??In Congo, we have many problems,â?? Richard says, his accent strong, but his words clear and deliberate. â??Everything is hard in Congo. I have six children, and to send the children to school is so hard. You work hard, but you have no money. That's why I decided, with my wife, to immigrate to the USA.â??

With Richard, the search for a better life is a common refrain. Thatâ??s what led him to give up his life as an economist in Africa to come here, no matter the obstacles.

â??To come here first, it was so hard for me to leave my family. And I remember when I came here, my [daughter] was so sick. And when I left Congo, she was in the hospital. I remember I cried like a kid. I cried, but knew I should come here because it was the best way to help my children get a good education. That's why it was so hard to leave the Congo, but it was like a new door opened for me to get a new life and the best life.â??

You can never underestimate the power of connection to your home, so it was only fitting, that Richard went where past Congolese immigrants had settled. He spent several years in Illinois and Indiana before moving to the Heartland.

Now, heâ??s been here for five years, but he isnâ??t alone. Just last year his wife, Celeste, and their children arrived. Still, Richard remembers the time they spent apart as if it were yesterday.

â??When I was alone here it was so hard for me. I worked so hard to get money to send to them and take care of myself. It was so complicated for me.â??

More of Richardâ??s countrymen are following in his footsteps. Within the last year, what was once a mere five families has grown to 40, totaling close to 100 Congolese people. Many have found work at Farmland Foods in the nearby town of Milan. Itâ??s there that the feeling of belonging that was lost an ocean away is being rediscovered. Additionally, the refugees are finding a larger community with the local population.

â??God put nice people in our way to help us to be integrated,â?? Richard beams. â??When new people come, we introduce them. Now we feel like a part of the community and everything is going very, very well. The people in Kirksville are so nice.â??

Donâ??t think this is the end of the story. With his heart forever tethered to his family, Richardâ??s dreams for the future become crystalized.

â??My goal is to go back to school, get my diploma and look for a nice job.â??

Itâ??s a goal he doesnâ??t take lightly, as he sets an example for his children and the new country he now calls home.

The Congolese contingent is in discussions with the city of Kirksville to celebrate with a downtown parade in the coming months. They want to hold it on June 30th, which is their countryâ??s Independence Day.

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