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From Congo to NY: a refugee's story of redemption

Marie Rose Mukeni Beya, a mother of five and a professor of psychology, fled the Democratic Republic of Congo after years of persecution to make a new life for herself  in the U.S.
Image: Marie Rose Mukeni-Beya presents a lesson on family during an Adolescent and Youth Psychology course at City College of New York in the Harlem Neighborhood of New York City
Almost nine years after she fled the Democratic Republic of Congo, Marie Rose Mukeni Beya has rebuilt her life and is teaching psychology at City College of New York.Jonathan D. Woods /
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“Why do women have to dance for you, just like you are a god?”

The bold question posed in 1975 in front of a large crowd by 22-year-old Marie Rose Mukeni Beya did not go over well with Zaire’s longtime dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, a despot best known in the West for his jaunty leopard skin hats. “Mobutu ordered: ‘Take her,’” Mukeni Beya recalled this month.

She was taken captive and tortured for three days, and from that time on was targeted, threatened, harassed and detained by Mobutu’s government and various repressive regimes that followed for questioning her government and standing up for women’s rights. Finally, she was forced to flee in 2002 and seek refuge in the United States.

Since arriving with her youngest daughter, with little more than the clothes on her back and in dire need of emergency medical care, Mukeni Beya has struggled to rebuild her life. Now, almost nine years later, the psychology professor and mother of five is finally realizing her dream: She is teaching again and will take her naturalization exam for U.S. citizenship in a few weeks.

Mukeni Beya is in some ways emblematic of the estimated 40 million refugees around the world who have been forced to flee their homes because of conflict or persecution. But, as the U.N. marks World Refugee Day on Monday, it’s important to note that her story also is in many ways different than that of the typical refugee.

Detention centers
Many refugees end up living in crowded camps for years, waiting for conflicts to end so they can go home. Others strike out on their own, heading to more stable countries in Europe and North America and applying for asylum. But often they languish in prison-like detention centers while their asylum cases are pending — and if they fail, they are deported to their country of origin.

Some 358,800 asylum applications were recorded in 44 countries in 2010, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

The greatest number of asylum seekers made their request to the U.S., which received approximately 55,500 asylum applications in 2010 but accepted only 21,113, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

Mukeni Beya was one of the lucky ones. Thanks to the network of doctors and lawyers who helped her heal and gain asylum, as well as her own determination, she’s now back where she wanted to be: teaching in a classroom with the freedom to speak her mind.

‘I was humiliated'
Mukeni Beya, a calm, confident, soft-spoken 58-year-old, was the first female psychologist in the former Zaire, a sprawling country in the center of Africa with a population of 71 million. Mobutu was the all-powerful one-man ruler of the country from 1965 until he was ousted in 1997 by Laurent Kabila, who renamed the country the Democratic Republic of Congo.

After presenting her dissertation in Belgium in 1980, Mukeni Beya returned to Zaire to teach. Before long, she was named to head the department of psychology at the University of Kisangani, and later assumed the same position at the University of Kinshasa, in the country’s capital.

Mukeni Beya said being the only female professor and the head of a university department in a male-dominated culture was not easy. She met resistance from both professors and students, who were not accustomed to working with or being taught by a woman.

“But I kept doing my job, because I was convinced that … if I got discouraged, I (would) show the Congolese that women cannot do something because they are weaker,” she said in a recent interview in New York.

A member of the Luba tribe, which was marginalized by Mobutu’s regime, Mukeni Beya was soon labeled as a troublemaker for pushing her students to be critical of their government, for trying to get rid of corruption among the other professors and for encouraging the female students to stand up for themselves.

“I thought that as a professor, it was my responsibility to raise the awareness of students,” she said. “My goal was not to say we are against the government, just to say we to question the government and be more critical.” She now says she was naïve and that there were government spies in some of her classes.

Forced to stand for two days straight
Things came to a head when a mob attacked her as she was handing out an exam on Congo’s Independence Day, June 30, in 2002. She was grabbed, taken away again and forced to stand for two days straight in a secret government installation.

“They said, ‘You are the one we’ve been searching for. Here you are – show that you are the professor. You will stand up; because you are a teacher, you are used to standing,’” Mukeni Beya said.

She said her captors, including some former students, mocked her and put cigarette butts out on her legs. They also subjected her to what she described as psychological torture meant to demean and discourage her. “I was well-known, the great Professor Mukeni, and then I was reduced to nothing,” she said. “I suffered physically, yes — but I suffered more by this kind of humiliation.”

As a result of the torture she developed deep-vein thrombosis — or major blood clots in her legs — a chronic condition that can be life threatening if not treated. As she shared her story, she lifted her long skirt to show the compression stockings she wears to prevent new blood clots from developing.

After being released, she knew she had to leave the country. She recalls breaking the news to her children.

“I told them, either I get help and improve my health and we can live together for a long time or I stay here and you know what will happen,” she said. “They were very courageous. They said, 'Mom, go.'”

On Christmas Day 2002, she and her youngest daughter, who was 11, left for New York City. When she arrived at Bellevue Hospital, the doctors took one look at her swollen legs and said she needed immediate emergency treatment.

“Torture, as we know, can have devastating health consequences — physically, psychologically and socially,” said Dr. Allen Keller, the director of the , who treated Mukeni Beya when she first arrived. “She endured all of these — the physical injuries, including the chronic deep vein thrombosis; the psychological impacts, feelings of sadness, terror, sleep difficulties.”

From prestige to poverty
Keller added that sometimes the social challenges and feelings of isolation can be among the biggest obstacles refugees face. 

“Here was somebody who had been an accomplished professor — a leader in her field in her country and she arrives here basically penniless. So I know it was very difficult for her,” he said.

The United States has a long history of accepting refugees and asylum seekers who have been forced to flee their homes because of persecution or fear of persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, social group or political opinion. In 1980 Congress passed the Refugee Act to bring U.S. law into compliance with the U.N. protocol on refugees, which prohibits any nation from returning a refugee to a country where his or her life may be threatened.

The U.S. provides refuge to victims of persecution through two programs: one for refugees outside of the U.S. and one for asylum seekers in the U.S. People in both groups go through lengthy processes to attain their immigration status.

Mukeni Beya received asylum in 2004, thanks in large part to Human Rights First, a nonprofit, nonpartisan international human rights organization.

Shoshana Altschuler, a member of the group and a young lawyer, took on Mukeni Beya’s pro-bono asylum case and helped steer her through the labyrinth that is this country’s immigration system.

“The way they treat me, they were with me every single day. I consider them as part of my family,” Mukeni Beya said of Altschuler and the other lawyers who worked on her case.

Even though she switched law firms, Altschuler continued working to win asylum for the rest of Mukeni Beya’s family and, in December 2004, the immigrant and her four other children were reunited in New York.

'A hard experience'
Gaining asylum for herself and her family did not solve all Mukeni Beya’s problems. Her teaching credentials were no good here and she was no longer the well-respected professional she had been.

“Being here as a refugee is a hard experience. You experience humiliation — every single day,” said Mukeni Beya. “You experience unemployment, homelessness, sickness — all these experiences just push you down. But you have to be strong enough to just stand up and say, ‘I know why I am here.’”

When she discovered she would have to repeat in English all the courses she had taken in French as a young college student, Mukeni Beya’s response was “OK! I will do that.” She never told her teachers about her background, but her secret inevitably crumbled when she aced her exams.

As she worked her way back, she found time to teach French at the , volunteer at the and work odd jobs to support her family.

Now, nearly nine years later, her hard work has paid off. She became an associate professor at the City College of New York a few weeks ago.

Marie Rose Mukeni-Beya presents a lesson on family during an Adolescent and Youth Psychology course at City College of New York in the Harlem Neighborhood of New York City Tuesday, June 14, 2011. (Jonathan D. Woods/ D. Woods

“I will teach what I have taught all my live: infancy and child development and adolescence," she said.

She is applying for U.S. citizenship and will take her naturalization exam soon. Her daughter, who is now in college studying medical engineering, has already become a U.S. citizen. Two of her sons are also attending college and the third is working full time.

Her lawyer, Altschuler, said she spoke to Mukeni Beya after she taught her first class at City College and that she was the happiest she has ever heard her.

“She’s made a real effort in the years that she’s been here to assimilate into our society,” Altschuler said. “She’s worked hard to follow the rules and get back to where she was. She is such a positive spirit and such a hard worker and has good morals, good values, and really just works to better herself and her family. Her determination is what made her story a success story.”

Not alone
For Keller, the doctor who treated her when she arrived in the U.S., Mukeni Beya’s story is what his work is all about.

“Clearly in many ways, Marie Rose represents the American dream: someone who overcame profound brutality and trauma, came here literally penniless and has not only rebuilt her life, but makes invaluable contributions to our society.”

Keller said that while Mukeni Beya’s story is remarkable, it is not uncommon. Survivors of Torture has cared for more than 3,000 individuals from more than 80 countries since it was founded 1995, and many of the refugees, asylum seekers and torture victims he meets on a daily basis have similar stories. 

“Individuals come here — often individuals who were very high functioning in their countries, but they may come here not speaking the language, not having friends or family or jobs. Basically homeless, undocumented, uninsured, uneverything,” said Keller. “But the same determination, tenacity, survival skills that enabled them to survive what they were subjected to in their country, also serves them well in making it here and rebuilding their lives.”

Mukeni Beya said the road to a new life has not been easy, but she credits the “Four Ds” — dedication, determination, devotion and discipline — with keeping her moving forward.

She said that as an educated woman who has been given the opportunity to make the best of her life, she couldn’t stand for anything less.

“It’s up to me to make the right choice,” she said. “… You fight, struggle every day.”