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Life after refuge: dreams of joining U.S. military – The San Diego Union

Patrick is no stranger to waiting.

After fleeing with his younger brother from the Democratic Republic of Congo when he was 13, Patrick waited for five years in Uganda to be processed for resettlement in the United States.

Now 20, he’s living in National City and waiting again — this time to convert his refugee visa to a full green card so that he can join the U.S. military.

“I had two dreams in my life,” said Patrick, who asked not to have his last name published. “I wanted to be a flight attendant. That was my dream. The other was becoming a software engineer.”

He thinks he’ll be able to live out the latter in the military. He’s leaning toward the Navy because he loves swimming in the ocean, but he’s still learning about his options with the different branches.

For now, he works, often overnight, on recycling and cleanup projects for a nonprofit that provides job skills training to young people. Sometimes there are no buses running by the time he finishes work, and he has to walk an hour in the darkness to get home.

He already speaks three languages — English, Swahili and Luganda — and because many of the people he works with speak Spanish, he has tried to learn some, as well.

He spends his free time teaching himself computer programming and figuring out how to fulfill requirements for his green card, such as getting a flu shot.

And he’s learning photography. He takes photos with his phone of landscapes when he’s on break from work.

Patrick doesn’t have keepsakes. He didn’t bring anything with him except clothes. He isn’t concerned about decorating the one-bedroom that he shares with his uncle and brother, the only family that he has left — he’s focused on less material priorities.

The income that he and his uncle make has to stretch to pay rent, buy food and repay the U.S. government for the cost of the flights that brought the family here.

He doesn’t like to talk about what happened to him. But he’s learned to tell the story quickly and calmly.

His parents were killed one night after members of an armed group forced their way into the family home. Only Patrick and his younger brother managed to escape, hiding in plantain trees after they ran away from their captors.

They followed a line of people displaced by the violence to Uganda.

“We walked for like two weeks until we reached the border,” said Patrick. “A couple died of hunger along the way.”

Once in Uganda, someone recognized Patrick and his brother and contacted their uncle who was already living there.

They went for medical checkups and then collapsed with exhaustion, sleeping the rest of the day in their uncle’s one-bedroom apartment with yellow walls.

Patrick walked to a nearby church two days a week for school. And his family began to have interviews with officials about their status as refugees and the possibility of resettling in the United States.

He remembers crying through some of the interviews.

Officials sometimes asked Patrick questions for hours, sometimes with his family present and sometimes alone. He told his painful story over and over again.

The waiting hurt, too, not knowing if or when they would be accepted by the United States and how much life might pass by before that day.

Finally, the time came to leave. Patrick, his brother and his uncle flew from Uganda to Qatar to Los Angeles. Then they took a bus to San Diego.

“When I first saw it, I thought it was beautiful, like a different environment,” Patrick recalled.

They stayed with family friends until they found a place to live.

Patrick feels lucky that his wait to resettle wasn’t longer. He knows that if he waited as long as some other Congolese refugees have, he would’ve aged out of the military.

He still considers himself a refugee. He said it would take becoming a U.S. citizen to change that — a change that joining the military could bring about sooner.

Article source: https://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/immigration/story/2020-12-27/life-after-refuge-dreams-of-joining-us-military

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