From asylum to assimilation. Local church community helps Congolese refugee put down Alexandria roots

From asylum to assimilation. Local church community helps Congolese refugee put down Alexandria roots
The Katula family on their reunion day. Courtesy Photo

By Lexie Jordan

Michel Katula was a 35-year-old successful surgeon in the Democratic Republic of Congo with a wife and three children when he was forced to leave his home and family be- hind and come to America in search of asylum. This was in 2016, when Congo was roiled by intense fighting and jockeying for power, and two years before the country held its first peaceful post-colonial transfer of power.

Northern Virginia Family Service received Katula’s case and connected him with Alexandria Presbyterian Church. Katula landed in Leesburg, Virginia in December 2016 without knowing any English, only French. Rev. David Glade of Christ the King, an Anglican church in Alexandria, was given Michel’s case by Alexandria Presbyterian and knew he and his parishioners could help. “Pastor David asked me to come to [Christ the King]. I came for three or four Sundays before he asked me to move here,” Katula said. “That was another big change for me, moving from Leesburg to Alexandria, I didn’t know anybody and that was very difficult.” Glade asked several parishioners to help ease Katula’s transition into the CtK community. Glade began by introducing Katula to members of CtK that could speak French and members of the vestry. That was where Michel met Barb Nelson and Suzanne Hellman.

“We went to lunch and he just cried because he didn’t know anybody. On top of that he didn’t speak our language,” Nelson said, remembering her first meeting with Katula in January 2017.

Hellman met Michel at a vestry meeting and was eager to help.

“I remember thinking I could use some help with French. Of course by him teaching me French, he was going to have to speak English because my French was quite limited,” Hellman laughed.

“Yes, [Suzanne] approached me before I even moved here and I started tutoring her. That was my first job,” Katula said. “She has been a big part of my life – my journey here. I can call anytime and she will be here for us.”

Katula lived in several CtK parishioners’ homes, where he was immersed in American culture. However, the adjustment was quite difficult for him.

For example, at his home in the DRC, Katula was able to get shaved for $.25, so that was something he never had to worry about. When he got to America, that became a problem. Nelson took Katula to several stores to get the proper materials for him to shave himself.

“I took Michel to CVS, Safeway and Rite Aid and would look for guys who would know what was going on with his type of hair, and it would just humor us because I couldn’t speak French and he couldn’t speak English,” Nelson said. “It’s the very basic stuff that was so hard.”

However, Katula said without a doubt his hardest struggle was adjusting to life without his family.

“The worst part was that my family was separated for such a long time,” Katula said.

For six years, Katula was without his wife Aline, his daughters Irene and Marie Therese, and his son Aaron – who was only six months when Katula came to America.

Aline assumed that she and the rest of the Katula family would be able to follow Michel soon after his departure; however, the process took longer than expected and they sought asylum in Burundi a year after Michel Katula left.

Cathy Gwin, one of the parishioners who opened her home to Katula, said her daughters helped temporarily fill that hole in his life.

“I think it was special for him to be in a house with young kids. I think it really helped fill the void that he was feeling from being apart from his family and his children,” Gwin said. “He really took an interest in their activities. He would help my 6th grader with French, and he would go to my 4th grader’s soccer games.”

Katula was always very cognizant of the differences between American and Congolese life. However, he was a quick study and was considered to be the perfect guest.

“He’s so polite and thoughtful and you could tell he really did not want to be an imposition,” Gwin said. “The three words I would use to describe him are brave, wise and humble.”

Katula spent his first three years in America living in various CtK homes.

“He became like my son’s bigger, wiser brother,” Hell- man laughed, reminiscing about when Katula stayed with them from September to November 2017.

During his first few years in Alexandria, Katula spent the majority of his time studying English and working as a cleaning technician at Inova Hospital. However, it was clear he was – and is – working well below his qualifications.

“He can more easily insert the IVs than many of the nurses, so when they have a difficult case, they call Michel and ask him to do it,” Nelson said. “He knows how to do that kind of stuff, he’s just gentle with people.”

In 2020, he began to live more independently. He moved into an apartment while working at the hospital, driving a car and speaking English with much more ease.

Another parishioner of CtK offered to pay for Katula to take classes in Arlington, where he learned advanced English and how to influence and talk to people.

However, Katula noted that the most confusing part was learning American customs.

“In America you’re not sup- posed to tell people they are gaining weight, but for us, gaining weight is a sign of health and wealth. In my mind I am trying to tell people they are gaining weight as a compliment,” Katula said with a laugh.

“Yes, he told someone that they had put on a few kilos, and the person was quite insulted,” Hellmann said finishing the story.

“Quickly I learned oop, don’t say that!” Katula laughed. He was able to get the hang of it with due time and after asking a lot of questions.

“He is always so gracious, such a gentleman. Always wanting to learn more about American customs and not offend anyone,” Nelson said.

In October 2022, Katula was finally reunited with his family. It took six years, but after much help from an Anglican bishop in Burundi, the American ambassador in Burundi and “Team Michel” – the group of CtK parishioners that consisted of French speakers, doctors, lawyers and friends – the Katulas were all together again in Alexandria.

Katula noted that the transition was eased because, starting in 2021, Hellman had been on the phone with Aline Katula and the family teaching them English, while they tutored her in French, so they al- ready knew each other.

Katula’s oldest daughter Irene is now 19, his middle daughter Marie Therese is nine and his son Aaron is seven.

Though the family mainly speaks French, they are fully immersed in American culture. They play Alexandria soccer, attend Alexandria schools and go to church at Christ the King.

Katula said the first goal for the family is to all become fluent in English. However, he noted that Aaron is well ahead of the rest.

“Aaron told me the other day that it’s not MACDonalds, it’s MICKDonalds,” Katula said laughing about how his son, who has only been practicing English for a few months, is correcting him.

Katula passed the TOEFL exam for medical professionals this past May, which is an En- glish exam that out-of-country doctors have to take instead of going to medical school again. By passing this test, he is able to take other medical ex- ams that can qualify him as a doctor in America. He is now waiting to take another exam before becoming a surgical assistant at the Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington.

Katula gives a lot of the credit for his success in America to the CtK community; how- ever, all the praise goes to God.

“When I would ask Michel ‘how are you doing’ when we would get some bad news he would go ‘We continue to thank God,’” Hellman said.

As much as Katula has learned from the CtK community, Hellman noted that the feeling has been mutual.

“It’s amazing to hear about the experience in their culture,” Hellman said. “It truly was one of the richest experiences.”

While reminiscing on his time so far in America, Katula emphasized the need for a hopeful attitude.

“People say ‘why’ in the negative way: ‘Why is this happening to me’ and so on. For me, I ask why in a positive way. ‘Why is this happening to me?’ It’s a good wow!”


The Democratic Republic of Congo

The Democratic Republic of the Congo, located in central Africa, is the largest officially Francophone country in the world and is the second-largest country by land size in Africa. The country was colonized in 1908 by Belgium, which valued Congo for its vast natural resources, particularly diamonds, gold, cobalt and copper. Congo gained independence in 1960, but lacked an infrastructure of democratic institutions, such as a functioning judicial system, that numerous other former colonies were bequeathed by the British. This, and other factors have caused Congo to be filled with strife since gaining independence.

Mobutu Sese Seko seized power in a coup d’etat in 1965 and established himself as the country’s dictator for 32 years. Mobutu propagated the country’s resources to amass a personal fortune estimated to be as much as $7 billion. He changed Congo’s name to Zaire, but the name was changed back to Congo after Mobutu was deposed in 1997. Zaire/The Democratic Republic of Congo has been roiled by civil war and intermittent conflict during most of the 25 years since Mobutu’s departure. However, in 2018, two years after Katula received asylum in the U.S., there was a peaceful transfer of power – with Felix Tshisekedi’s election as president – for the first time since Congo gained independence. While voting irregularities were alleged in the 2018 election, Tshisekedi remains in power today.