A Welcome Home: Runyambo family will soon have a house in Hillsborough

The concept of “home” will soon take residence in a physical house for the Runyambo family that has spent the majority of the last 20 years fleeing genocide in their home country and moving around the United States.

Currently the Runyambo family lives in a three bedroom apartment in Chapel Hill, and soon will have a home in Hillsborough, projected to be finished in summer of 2017, with the help of Hands for Habitat, a partnership between Orange County Schools and Orange County Habitat for Humanity, and the financial partner, Sports Endeavors.

Farther of the Runyambo family, Norbert Runyambo, said he feels like he has never had a home, but thanks to this unique project, will for the first time be able to bring people into his house and care for them.

War and the search for refuge

Norbert’s children describe him as a humble man who has sacrificed everything for his family.

Norbert was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo and raised there, eventually working as a physician and as the Medical Director for South Kivu, a province of five million people, for over 20 years.

In 1996 when the Congolese War broke out, the Runyambo family – Norbert and Laurence Mukabatsinda and their eight children, Esther, Daniella, Gentille, Paul, Michee, Loetitia, Jonathan, and Lydia – fled to three separate areas: Norbert fled to Burundi, to the east, his wife Laurence, pregnant at the time, fled to Congo Brazzaville, a city on the edge of the western Congo border, and his children fled to Rwanda, located to the east of their home country and just north of Burundi. 

“Escape means running all up and down, going house by house until you find someone who can open the door for you,” Daniella said. “You’re literally running until you can find a safe place to hide for a night and start running, hiding in the bush again. That’s the fleeing we are talking about.”

The war began over ethnic conflict, and the Runyambo family was part of the Tutsi tribe, a band of the Banyamulenge tribe, one that was targeted during the war. One of more than 300 tribes that exist in the country, the Tutsi make up less than 1 percent of the population, accentuating the devastation of over 2,000 deaths during the war.

The first time Norbert fled, he escaped through the back door of a hospital in which he worked. 

“[My father] was very well-known, so they knew where he was, what he did, so they went and tried to find him,” Daniella said. “They went to the hospital to try to find him, but he was lucky enough to escape when they came in the hospital because some people kind of tipped him off. He was able to escape but there were some patients who were from my tribe in the hospital that he was treating that couldn’t escape because of their condition, so they killed 11 people in the hospital, the people that [my father] was treating.” 

The next eight years for the Runyambos were tenuous as they moved between the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi, as tensions ebbed and flowed. In 2004 the family fled back to Rwanda, staying at a refugee camp there, while other tribe members fled to a camp in Burundi in the Gatumba village. On Aug. 13 of 2004, a militia ransacked the Gatumba refugee camp, burning and killing over 126 people and wounding more than 250 others, in an incident that came to be widely known as the Gatumba Massacre. 

“I think that was kind of an eye opener for anyone, for any parents at that time,” Daniella said. “It wasn’t about the emotion of being back in your county anymore, if they can find you where you were finding refuge, then there wasn’t anything to preserve anymore.”

The United States

Norbert came to the United States, specifically Maine, in 2005, with a goal of obtaining asylum. 

When asked why he came to the United States, Norbert answered without hesitation, “For them” – his family – his children.

“There was no safety, even in Rwanda, there was no safety,” he said. “I thought that the better thing to do was to go far and far from all of [the war].”

He gained a two-week visa, and when time ran out, he refused to leave and was granted three months to travel. After three months expired, he refused again. Eventually, after presenting and going through judges and other obstacles, Norbert and thus, his family, were granted asylum.

The family joined him in America in 2007, and in 2012, Laurence and the younger children moved to North Carolina for a job opportunity, but also because of the more appealing weather and educational opportunities.

She came to love the area, and over the next four years, the rest of the family has gradually moved to join each other in North Carolina. 

“We are some of the luckiest people, at least in our tribe, to be alive with two parents in a place like Congo, something we don’t see often,” Daniella said. “To have that, it’s what has kept us grateful in life, and we know that our biggest trend so far has been our family and the closeness of our family. We treasure that because it’s not something a lot of people have.

“We’ve seen so much and heard so much and we were lucky enough to be touched and changed without being really affected,” she continued. “And knowing that, try to treasure it as much as we can.”

In the Congo, Laurence worked for a nonprofit that served women and orphans, and Norbert was the first doctor in his tribe and held a physician’s license, both jobs that did not transfer into the United States.

Norbert began volunteering with Habitat for Humanity about a year ago, after he retired. The required amount of sweat equity hours to pay off a Habitat house is 325 service hours and Norbert alone has completed over 350 hours, before the Runyambo’s Habitat house was to be built, and still now, working on houses for others and continuing his attitude of serving the public in any way that he can. 

“That just shows how much he believes in what Habitat does, but also how invested he wants to be in the community,” Director of Development and Administration at Orange County Habitat for Humanity Jennifer Player said. “We’re excited to have this family in Hillsborough, in the Fairview community. I think this is the kind of family that is going to invest in that neighborhood.”

The Hands for Habitat project, which began nine years ago as a partnership between Orange County Schools and Habitat for Humanity, builds one house per year, choosing the Runyambo family home this year. 

Younger grades interact through things like fundraising, and the older students at Orange High School volunteer through the construction traits class taught by Bob Therman, getting hands on experience building a home, enhancing skills for a future career.  

“This is the only partnership like this that we are aware of,” Player said. “To our knowledge, this is the only one of it’s kind in the country.”

A Habitat house usually costs around $80,000 and requires funding, which through this financial partnership is provided by Sport Endeavors, who donates $50,000 annually. 

“It’s a great family to partner with Orange County Schools because education is very important to Norbert and Laurence, and they have instilled that in their kids,” Player said. “It’s really a neat connection that they are able to work with students and hopefully inspire other students as well.

“When I met Norbert and Laurence and their kids, I don’t think I’ll ever forget it,” Player continued. “They are the kindest people, who when you’re around them, they are just full of joy, their entire family, you can tell they have such love and respect for one another that is contagious. They are a very, very special family.”

“Looking back on our lives, we never really had a specific house that we call home or a specific place that we call home,” Daniella said. “But I think we carry home with us and it’s where we can be us, like as a family. We can reconnect.”

“And for us, because we care for [our parents] so much, we want them to have a place where they can be comfortable, where they can grow old, where we can bring our grandchildren,” she continued. “Having a place where they can exercise their values, it’s very important, that is a place where we call home.”

Norbert’s voice grew softer with gratitude and he leaned in, ending his story saying, “Even the little you have, you can share it. We are going to share [our new house] with our community, Hillsborough Community, Triangle community, United States [as a] country, even back home.

“I feel that I am somewhere where I have to shine.”