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Norfolk is a gateway to a safer way of life

PUBLISHED: 09:37 27 October 2011

Congolese refugee Sharon Chitambala in her Norwich home with her children Jeremiah, Ephriam and Marceline and husband Faustin Ramazani. Photo: Steve Adams

Congolese refugee Sharon Chitambala in her Norwich home with her children Jeremiah, Ephriam and Marceline and husband Faustin Ramazani. Photo: Steve Adams

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Since 2006 Norwich has run the Gateway Protection Programme, offering refuge to people from around the world whose lives are in peril. As the scheme reaches an end, KEIRON PIM meets some of the people it has helped.

In 2006 Norwich became one of 15 local authorities to launch a scheme aimed at welcoming refugees and easing their integration into British life.

The Norwich Gateway Protection Programme has since enabled about 300 people to find safety.

Their home countries were Congo, Ethiopia, Iraq, Zambia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Jordan, and from these diverse origins they shared a common experience of suffering horrors that left them traumatised and fearing for their lives.

Sue Gee is a manager at Norfolk County Council’s specialist social work service and has overseen the scheme since its inauguration.

“We took in 63 people in the first year, including children and babies,” she says.

“There were 13 households. All of them are still here. Every family has remained. The only people who have moved away is a single man who is planning to return, and two of the young girls who have moved away to marry.

“Then in the second year we took in 78 people, and the following year 90 people, including some of the Iraqis who had to come here when the British withdrew from Iraq. In the fourth year we took 80 refugees originally from Congo and Iraq.”

But now, to the council’s disappointment, the Home Office is transferring its administration to three set-ups in Yorkshire and Lancashire. Here is one of the new Norwich refugees’ many stories.

She escaped the terror of civil war in her homeland, only to suffer devastating loss as she tried to rebuild her life in Norwich.

In 2009 her husband Isengelo Masudi died in a car accident on the A1, along with his nephew Kibungu Vanueli and their friend Faustin Emidi Patachako.

The heart-breaking story of the three Congolese men’s deaths soon after arriving here as refugees attracted widespread sympathy.

Today Sharon Chitambala continues to grieve and remains angry that no one was prosecuted in connection with the crash, but she is trying once more to make a new start.

In March of this year she married again and is raising her three children, the eldest of whom was injured in the accident, with the help of her new husband, Faustin Ramazani.

“My husband was a good man, a gentle man,” she says. “I loved him very much. He encouraged me to do NVQs when we arrived here, and he encouraged me to integrate.

“He was driving to Manchester, taking them to see relatives. Who knows, only God knows why it happened. I’m very disappointed that the judge [at Nottingham coroner’s court] said he lost control and that no one else made a mistake. It has made me very sad. I thank God I am a strong lady, but without Jesus Christ I wouldn’t be here.

“My children are always saying ‘take us to the graveyard’, but I cannot always take them every time, so we have a stone here in the house to remember him by.”

Sharon, who is aged 36, lives in west Norwich with Faustin and her children Jeremiah Masudi, aged 13, Ephraim Masudi, nine, and Marceline, six.

She and Isengelo came to the city in December 2006 after eight years in a Zambian refugee camp. They fled the Democratic Republic of Congo as war broke out in the late 1990s, revolving around a deadly mixture of ethnic tensions and competition for the country’s precious metals and minerals – gold, copper and coltan, which is used in the manufacture of mobile phones.

“If there was a war in Ipswich and you lived in Norwich you would run away,” she says. “We came to Zambia and lived there for eight or nine years as refugees. We had trouble with food and clothing, and had donations from the UN and the World Food Programme.”

Thanks to the Gateway Protection Programme, run for the last five years by Norfolk County Council’s children’s services department, the family was eased into Norfolk life, although Sharon initially struggled with her English and found it upsetting that people did not reciprocate when she said “hello” to them in the street.

“The thing that has really helped me was I found a church called Eternity Christian Centre, which used to be called Earlham Christian Church,” she adds. “Pastor Paddy and Pastor Jennike Venner are very good.”

On arriving in Norfolk she and her late husband were determined to make a positive difference and so she founded an international women’s group that enabled people to share their experiences and help each other settle in Norfolk. She ran this group until Isengelo’s death.

Sharon has also volunteered for several organisations and, after six months’ of doing so, secured a paid role with Stonham Homestay, which provides housing support for people in difficult situations – refugees, victims of domestic violence and drug and alcohol-abusers to give a few examples.

Her children are doing well in their schools, she says, and speak good English. But she will not pretend that it has been easy to marry her Congolese cultural traditions with the world that her children are embracing at school.

“We cannot lose our traditions,” she says. “If our children want to go to work in Africa one day, they will need to know our traditions or they will be rejected.

“Respect for parents is a blessing, we say. It is important.”

Nor has it been as easy as she hoped to form a community with other Congolese in the city.

“I would love to see the Congolese in Norwich come together more and listen to one another. But Norwich is good, it is safe, and we have no problems here as long as we know what we are doing. If it is safe in Congo one day perhaps we would go back. I miss being outside in the evenings chatting with people.

“But as long as there are minerals there it will not be safe.”

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