One step at a time

June 23-July 6, 2005
VOL 124 NO. 24
One step at a time
By Claudia Mathis/ SUN staff writer
SUN photo(s) Chuck Wainwright

When Cyprien Mihigo and his family arrived from the Congo at the Hancock Airport in Syracuse in June 2001, they were welcomed by a large group of parishioners from Most Holy Rosary Church in Syracuse. Also there to welcome the family were Harvey Pinyoun and Kip Hargrave from Refugee Resettlement Services of Onondaga County Catholic Charities.

Gordon Kotars is a member of the church committee of 10 who sponsored the Mihigo family. In addition to being in charge of supplying all the furniture for the Mihigo’s new home, he joined a group of parishioners from Most Holy Rosary in helping to transport the family to various activities.

Kotars thinks highly of the Mihigos. “I’m close with the family,” he said. “I’m godfather of two of their children. I think Cyprien is an amazing man.”

Most Holy Rosary parishioners decided to sponsor the Mihigo family after Hargrave spoke at the church, challenging the parishioners to adopt a refugee. Father Frederick Mannara, pastor of Most Holy Rosary Church, said that he heard many parishioners say that they would support the adoption of a refugee family after hearing Hargrave’s presentation. “I heard enough ‘yeses’,” said Father Mannara. “We have seen the Mihigos’ attachment and love for Most Holy Rosary grow over the years. They are willing to assist in any way. The children help out by shoveling snow and mowing the grass on the parish grounds. It’s been a grace-filled time for us. Hargrave was right when he said that it would do so much for our parish if we adopted a refugee family. Even though the Mihigos are from a different culture, they never cause a commotion in church. They are peaceful and quiet.”

The Mihigo family emigrated from the Congo to seek a better life and escape the killing, rape and abduction brought on by war. Mihigo realized he needed to do something when the Congolese government put the word out to kill all members of the Tutsi tribe in Africa. Because Mihigo’s wife was a member of that tribe, he sent her and their children from Goma on the Eastern border of the Congo across the border into Rwanda.

After later joining his family in Rwanda, he contacted the United Nations High Commission of Refugees in an attempt to emigrate to the U.S. The Mihigo family was then interviewed by the organization. The family needed to prove that they had a valid reason for fleeing their country. American immigration officials from the Immigration and Naturalization Services then interviewed them, where they were asked the same questions. The Mihigos then needed to pass physicals to determine if they had any communicable diseases. The process took several years to complete.

Pinyoun, volunteer coordinator at Onondaga County Catholic Charities/Refugee Resettlement Services, helped the Mihigos get settled in Syracuse. Assigned to be their caseworker, Pinyoun helped them apply for food stamps, set up medical appointments, helped them shop and transported them to English classes. Because of his background, Pinyoun felt that he understood the family’s situation. “After spending some time in Africa, I have a sense of that country’s culture,” said Pinyoun.

Pinyoun was impressed with Mihigo’s determination to succeed. “Cyprien is a very disciplined and focused man,” said Pinyoun. “He decides on a dream, develops a plan, and then goes after it.”

But Mihigo hasn’t forgotten about the people in the Congo. Before he left his country, he created EJEDA, a non-profit organization that helps abandoned people, the elderly, young people who are deserting military service, AIDS victims and oppressed women. Mihigo explained that EJEDA diffuses love, peace and justice in the Congo where there is suffering from unexpected tragedies such as volcanoes, accidents and anything related to a natural disaster.

Mihigo continues to seek support, members and funds for the EJEDA organization here in the U.S. He said, “In Syracuse, EJEDA wants to participate in community work by trying to promote respect for the elderly, promote the importance of women and to spread love and peace.”

Mihigo had always dreamed of obtaining a university education. Because of financial limitations, he wasn’t able to engage in post-secondary education studies when he lived in the Congo.

After arriving in Syracuse, Mihigo began his studies at Onondaga Community College in August 2002. He had nothing but good things to say about the college. “O.C.C is helpful, impartial and socially ready to serve students of any background,” remarked Mihigo. “What I have gotten from O.C.C. is not only an unforgettable souvenir, but also a foundation for my whole remaining life. When I first arrived at O.C.C., I couldn’t speak English. Many people helped me.”

Mihigo graduated from O.C.C. in December 2004, one step closer to his dream of a university education. He is now enrolled at Syracuse University, majoring in geology. Mihigo has recently written a book about his life experiences. “I believe that telling people what I found at O.C.C. will influence many other people to work hard toward their success,” he said. “That is the reason I am writing about my life experiences.”

To show his appreciation, Mihigo sponsored a party on May 15 at the parish center of Most Holy Rosary Church for the people who helped him achieve his goal. Approximately 160 people attended the celebration and enjoyed a large buffet prepared primarily by Most Holy Rosary parishioner Fran Allen. Those participating in the party enjoyed the jovial atmosphere as African and American music played in the background.

Mihigo expressed his appreciation by presenting an engraved plaque to each person who had helped him. The Mihigo family was extremely grateful for Father Mannara’s support. “Father Fred has taken care of us for four years,” said Mihigo. He presented Father Mannara with a plaque engraved “Thank you Most Holy Rosary, for always being there.”

Father Mannara was delighted that Mihigo had achieved his goal of graduating from O.C.C. “He is plainly determined to succeed,” remarked Father Mannara. “Nothing stands in his way of studying.”

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