Refugees who fled war in eastern Congo die on Denver streets

A 73-year-old woman who rescued her infant grandson from war in the Democratic Republic of Congo and carried him to safety sat in a darkened Denver apartment recently — grieving his murder in this city that was supposed to be safe.

“People started killing each other. We ran away,” Therese Mukandakezi recalls of the war 25 years ago where fighters widely abused civilians.

She and her beloved Zuwa Goro (short for Zuwayidi Byiringiro) hid in the jungle as marauders ravaged their North Kivu village. Handed to Mukandakezi by his mother who didn’t want him to grow up under a man who wasn’t his father, Goro could barely walk. They escaped in a truck with a priest and rode into neighboring Rwanda.

They languished for more than a decade in a refugee camp until United Nations officials cleared them for a life-saving resettlement — across the world in Denver — where Goro graduated from high school and became a popular youth center leader.

He was gunned down in February at age 27 in an alley below the apartment he shared with his grandmother.

Less than two years before this killing, Goro’s best friend Eugene Karekezi, 27, a fellow refugee from eastern Congo, crippled from polio, also was slain, in his wheelchair — in the same Denver alley.

They’re among the latest of many refugees who fled life-threatening perils in Africa and then were killed over the past few years in the United States. While Denver projects a welcoming posture as a safe haven for refugees and “sanctuary city” for all immigrants, refugees relocated into the only pockets of the city where housing is affordable are forced to navigate a deadly underworld. The perils have reached the point that some refugees (including Goro and Karekezi before they were killed) consider returning to Africa. Goro went to Rwanda in 2021 scouting possibilities for a better future.

Sadness etched on her face, Mukandakezi often walks near the alley where Goro died as she heads to church — “God will protect me,” she said — and she relies on Rukasa Claude — another refugee from Congo and friend of both victims — to interpret this new dangerous nation. “I lost Goro. I have Ruksasa. When I see Ruksasa, I see Goro,” she said in her native Kinyarwanda language as temperatures outside turned frigid.

Now Mukandakezi and Claude may be uprooted again as urban renewal gains momentum around Denver’s East Colfax neighborhood where refugees are concentrated. Claude is a former child miner from a mountainside gold pit in Congo who saw five of his relatives killed and met Karekezi when they were boys in a refugee camp. He took Mukandakezi into his apartment in the same block where she lived with Goro.

Through the window, they see where developers are preparing to build 100 condos and townhomes, approved by the Aurora City Council, costing more than $500,000.

“Why couldn’t they build some houses in Denver that are cheaper, so that poor people can survive?” said Claude, who previously worked in an orthodontics factory and now drives round-the-clock for a ridesharing company to afford rising rent.

“I’ve seen my two friends die. I am scared,” he said. “This city, it must change. It is supposed to protect everyone, especially refugee people. We came here to find peace. Some of us have already lost our sisters, our mothers. The United Nations officials who sent us here told us Denver was a peaceful city. But people still die. We need more police protection.”

Compared with eastern Congo, “Denver is scarier because people just shoot,” Claude said. “Over there, it is rebels. We knew when they were coming. But in Denver you don’t know when it is coming, the cross-fire. It is worse.”

Denver police haven’t solved the killing of Karekezi on May 17, 2020, as he rolled up the alley between Yosemite and Xenia streets in his wheelchair. He’d contracted polio in Rwanda before UN officials sent his family to Denver. Somebody fired two bullets into the back of his neck, police reports show, and he died as Goro held him in his lap.

After Goro was killed on the morning of Feb. 11 — 75 yards north of the spot where Karekezi died — police increased patrols. One or more gunmen fired four shots into Goro’s head and chest, according to police reports reviewed by the Denver Post, and he died at the base of a phone pole. Police converged, red lights flashing in wet falling snow, videos shared by residents show, after shot-detector systems transmitted coordinates. Police investigators have arrested suspects and prosecutors are pressing first-degree murder charges against a suspect who was under 18 at the time of the killing.

These deaths in Denver reflect a nationwide surge of murders — up 30% in U.S. cities since 2020. Unlike the recurring high-profile mass shootings in schools, nightclubs, stores and churches, the bulk of the murders receive little attention. Refugee killings aren’t tracked, and federal Office of Refugee Resettlement officials didn’t respond to Denver Post queries.

On April 13 in Denver, another refugee from Congo was shot in the head and pronounced dead in his parked car on Colorado Boulevard, a block north of Colfax Avenue. Police reports said Emmanuel Amani had come to Denver from Congo in 2014. He was a father of two children and his spouse told police he was “a prayer warrior” on his way to work at King Soopers.

U.S. government contractors long have deemed Denver, with its robust economy, relatively healthy for receiving UN-vetted refugees uprooted by war and natural disasters. Yet, for decades, newcomers from Africa, Asia and Central America have struggled to navigate dangers — and people tasked with “resettling” end up often un-settled.

The crime-plagued East Colfax neighborhood straddling Denver and Aurora became especially deadly for refugees. Police record frequent shootings, which have claimed the lives of at least four refugees.  Among the dead was Southeast Asian refugee community leader Ma Kaing, 47, who was shot July 15 as she was unloading donated desserts from a vehicle outside her family’s apartment on Xenia Street.

On Sept. 15, 2019, Somalian refugee Omar Noor, 23, was shot to death near East Colfax Avenue and Verbena Street, a few blocks from the apartments.

For more than a decade, refugees and their advocates have been warning that relocating foreign newcomers who are struggling to find jobs and learn English in a high-crime hotspot is risky.

“Goro was always asking the question: ‘Why did they put us here?’ ” said his friend Yoal Ghebremeskel, an immigrant from Eritrea who graduated from the University of Denver as a Daniels Fund scholar and helped launch the Street Frat refugee self-help youth center. Each weekday, up to 30 refugee teens hang out after school at the Street Frat, run out of a rented Disabled American Veterans basement along Colfax, to study, exercise, meditate, and eat. Karekezi and Goro called this place home. Goro became an employee, collecting food and preparing the Street Frat’s evening meals.

He also helped run the weekly Street Frat donated food giveaways to refugee families in the neighborhood.

And after Karekezi was killed, Ghebremeskel said, “he asked me to find him a bible in Kinyarwanda.”

Nationwide, refugee resettlement faces challenges.

Congress in 1980 ordered the creation of a national system for vetting and resettling refugees, a small subset of immigrants, defined by the UN as the most vulnerable of the world’s record 25 million uprooted people. U.S. federal agencies admitted up to 230,000 refugees a year during the 1990s. This decreased to fewer than 80,000 under President Barack Obama. President Donald Trump then slashed the national cap to 18,000. President Joe Biden raised the refugee cap to 125,000, though federal data from the 2022 fiscal year show only 25,465 arrivals.

Yet U.S. public funding for resettling refugees — given to contractors for finding housing, learning English, and finding jobs — is shrinking. The government spends roughly $1,225 per refugee, said Susan Fratzke, senior policy analyst for the Migration Policy Institute, a bipartisan immigration think tank in Washington D.C.

“That money must be used to cover rent, furnish an apartment, provide transportation, and cover the costs of case managers who assist refugees in signing up for school, medical appointments, and navigating their new communities,” Fratzke said. “With so little funding available, resettlement agencies often have to prioritize finding housing that is as affordable as possible when deciding where to settle refugees. This can lead to refugees being placed in communities that have limited resources and services, or are facing other challenges like economic underdevelopment that may make them more vulnerable to crime or violence.”

In Denver, as housing prices soar, finding safe space is especially difficult, even though leaders have declared the city to be a “sanctuary city” for all immigrants.

Denver leaders in 2019 designated East Colfax officially “blighted” and launched an urban renewal redevelopment plan with accelerated funding and support. Proponents tout redevelopment as a market-oriented solution to poverty and violence.

Aurora leaders, too, have signed off on an overhaul and, after “outreach” meetings informing residents, approved high-end housing development along Yosemite Street, just east of the refugee apartments. Contractors have erected wire fences and construction is expected to start next year.

“How is this ‘market’ fair to the people living here?” Ghebremeskel said, walking from refugee apartment blocks to the heavily-used alley where his two friends died.

“I mean, we want refugees to participate in ‘the market.’ And most of them are working. But they still have to come to the Street Frat each week to get food. When these condos go up, what are all these young men going to do?”

In October, refugees joined hundreds of East Colfax Community Collective members protesting the urban renewal projects that they fear will accelerate gentrification, rising rents and displacement. They marched down the alley where Karekezi and Goro were murdered.

Street Frat leaders have sent a letter to Denver Police, thanking them for increased patrols, dispelling suggestions by a city council member that refugees in the area may lean toward “defund the police” activism. “We want the police,” Ghebremeskel said.

They’re also pushing Denver Parks and Recreation to follow through on planned improvements at the seven-acre Verbena Park, where refugees proposed the installation of a small soccer court and raised $20,000 from a donor. City officials delayed the scheduled completion of the project. “Due to recent price escalations, construction bids have exceeded the project budget,” an agency website said. “DPR is committed to moving forward in 2023 and will communicate a new construction timeline once determined.”

The Street Frat itself now faces displacement. Disabled American Veterans officials in December confirmed that, due to member fears of violence, they’re considering selling their building and the adjacent parking lot where food is distributed. They estimated the price would be more than $1 million. Street Frat officials said they doubt they could compete with private developers.

“Who are we building these townhomes and condos for?” asked Brendan Greene, director of the East Colfax Community Collective, who grew up in the area and laments increasing gunfire.

“Building upscale developments in the heart of an essential, low-income community is violence against our community,” Greene said. “Alleging that this will make us safer is extremely far from reality. We shouldn’t be trying to create safe conditions through violent displacement. The ‘market’ is not serving residents. We need aggressive policy intervention to correct the market. We need the cities to work with residents, to make plans that better serve this neighborhood.”

Building owners anticipating an overhaul are starting to raise rents, Greene said, noting the average annual income in East Colfax is $36,850 and urging greater emphasis on better low-income rental housing options.

Some refugees are mulling a return to Africa.

“They’re wrestling with the question: ‘Where do I belong?’” Ghebremeskel said.

Living conditions in eastern Congo have deteriorated as conflicts intensified. Ever since the 1994 killing in adjacent Rwanda, which led to Hutu fighters fleeing to eastern Congo and reassembling an Interahamwe militia, periodic ragged parades of uprooted villagers have fled seeking food, safety and shelter. UN officials estimate more than 4 million people have died in Congo.

Mineral riches complicate the conflict, with vast resources including gold and the coltan used worldwide in smartphones. Claude told how, as a boy, he and others in North Kivu dug in a mine, ordered by men to find gold. One day he found nuggets, several ounces. A man stuffed money in his hand, which he hastily took to his mother.

As best friends in Denver during high school, Karekezi and Goro made a plan to return Rwanda, which has been relatively stable and growing economically. After Karekezi was killed, Goro at first gave up, then followed through. But after six weeks in Rwanda last year, the opportunities looked difficult at best. He flew back early to Denver.

Now refugees mourning his death are discussing the creation of a public monument to slain refugees in east Denver — for remembrance and as a reminder to avoid gun violence.

Two men have taken over the work that Goro handled as a Street Frat employee.

One of them, Jebreel Nile, 19, who shared evening meals with Goro and Karekezi for years, helps run the food giveaways. He stood recently outside the Street Frat basement in the parking lot as a long line of Southeast Asian mothers waited for bags of donated food.

Tall and athletic and able to converse in English, French and Pulaar, Nile, as he handed out bags, described “how much my life has changed in one year.” He graduated from the New America School with a high school degree. His spouse gave birth to their daughter, named Zoya, intended to honor Zuwa Goro. Nile also completed the process of becoming a U.S. citizen.

But he sees his future in Africa. He recently bought air tickets to leave Denver for a five-month exploratory trip to Mauritania, he said, where he’ll hunt for his ancestral homelands. Decades ago, his family was forced out of Mauritania, driven south across the river border into Senegal.

He speaks little Arabic. He lacks contacts.

He’ll be on the road to find out whether farming or other business could be done, he said. “I am looking to find my own place.”

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