‘I am now complete’: Story of a father, 3 daughters, and reunification


September 04, 2018

 

By Abubaker Mayemba

AnchorThree young girls, 9-year-old Eunice Neema, 7-year-old Bless Riziki and 4-year-old Plenty Buya, surrounded by their care-takers, calmly sit down on the couch at the IOM office in Kampala. With their newly braided hair, they are dressed to the nines as they are going to meet the director of IOM. At least, that’s what they think…

While waiting, they receive a phone call from their father, Stéphane Kalala, who lives in Belgium. He originates from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and has been recognized as a refugee in Belgium. « How are you? » he asks Neema in French. « I’m fine. » « It has been a long time. » « Yes. » When Bless’ turn comes, a few teardrops appear. They haven’t seen each other for three years now. Mr Kalala starts singing and soon tears start rolling down the cheeks of the three sisters.

But the voice grows closer, and while the two younger girls concentrate on the image of their father on the phone screen, Neema suddenly understands. On realizing that it’s not a dream and dad is not calling from Belgium, Neema can’t hide her excitement anymore. She sprints from the waiting chair, jumps high into the arms of her father, who readily embraces her, tight. As if to dispel his doubts, Mr Kalala lowers his child to stare into her pearly eyes, before lifting her into his arms one more time.

For close to a minute, Mr Kalala embraces his firstborn child and perhaps due to what he and his daughters have endured, he starts crying.

“I told you, no? On the boat, I told you, no? That I will come and look for you and your sisters.”, Mr Kalala tells Neema in French.

Holding all three, he sways between sobs and laughs and says; “I am now completely complete because I have got my daughters. My princesses are with me now.”

For three years, he has prayed and longed for this day when his daughters will be able to join him in Belgium. His daughters, back in The Democratic Republic of the Congo, went with their mother to Uganda (their parents are separated) in order to launch the family reunification procedure to Belgium.  The three files have been lodged to the Belgian Consulate in September 2017. The day after, Mr Kalala contacted IOM Brussels for the first time to inquire about the assistance it provides. He already had his mind set on an idea: to welcome his daughters in person, but not in an ordinary way. He wanted to prepare the surprise of their lives.

However, a few months later, as their mother had to return to the DRC and to choose the best for her daughters’ future, they were entrusted to an aunt and then to a host family, in Keevina, Nsambya.

For four months, this family took care of the girls even though they had never met their parents.  Mr Kalala describes them as a “super family.” Since he had the host family’s contact number, he frequently called his daughters, telling them that he was doing all he could to bring them to Belgium. Advised by the non-profit organization Aide Aux Personnes Déplacées in Belgium, he obtained a loan from Credal to finance travel expenses and contacted IOM for the logistical organization of the latter. He also obtained the agreement from the Belgian embassy to issue a laissez-passer for his daughters.

“Every time I called, I told them [daughters] to be patient because one day they would join me in Belgium. I had submitted my request to the Belgian government,” he recalls.

But not even the phone calls could fill the vacuum of not having their parents with them. Neema had the hardest task of consoling Buya every time she threw tantrums asking where her parents were. Even when the younger ones fell sick, it was Neema who was always sent to the drug shop to buy medicines.

Even though Mr Kalala seemed to have thought of everything, there were still some obstacles to overcome.  Mr Kalala and his daughters were asked to undergo DNA tests to prove filiation. All tests proved that the three girls were indeed Mr Kalala’s daughters. But when they finally received the visa approval in May 2018, one issue was still Anchorstanding: they had no legal status in the country, they were neither asylum seekers nor refugees in Uganda and the travel documents they had used to enter Uganda had long expired.

IOM Uganda, in coordination with IOM Brussels, guided both the father and the host family to solve this problem. Once done, IOM Uganda collected their laissez-passers at the Belgian embassy. Then, arrangements were made for the father to collect the girls from Uganda. Indeed, no airline will accept the girls on board without a responsible adult, the youngest being aged less than 5 years at the time.

The IOM Uganda Resettlement Operations officer, recalls that they had to engage a number of stakeholders to intervene so that the family could be reunited. They approached officials from Uganda’s Directorate of Citizenship and Immigration Control for guidance on how to handle the matter.

Arrangements were made for the father to come and collect the girls from Uganda hence enabling a smooth exit at the airport. On the 2nd July, he arrived ready to surprise his daughters who had no idea on when they would fly out to meet their father. 

When the girls arrived that day at IOM Uganda offices, they had no idea that their father – who had arrived from Belgium that very morning – was waiting in the same building.

The surprise was complete, and the emotion was very strong. For them, for the host family, but also for the IOM staff who was present. 

After a health assessment at the transit centre to verify if they are fit to travel, the family is briefed on the itinerary and pre-departure formalities, including the very early morning awakening. The flight is scheduled at 3:45 am. Accompanied by the IOM airport assistant at Entebbe airport, the family smoothly goes through check-in, security and immigration formalities.  

Tired but happy faces are welcomed in Istanbul by another IOM staff member. Mr Kalala hasn’t lost his huge smile since the extraordinary reunion with his daughters. Three hours and 20 minutes later, they finally arrive at Brussels airport. IOM staff members are waiting for them at the exit of the aircraft to facilitate immigration, luggage collection and customs formalities. While passing by a poster of the Belgian Atomium, Mr Kalala points at it and stresses each syllable “A-TO-MI-UM”. The three young girls repeat one after the other: “A-TO-MI-UM”. It seems that their integration had already begun.

Almost two months later, Mr Kalala says that they are going well and live in Namur, Belgium. He is looking for a bigger place to live and they are getting ready for the beginning of the school year. 

Now that they are reunited, MrKalala only plans the best for his girls. He plans to give them the best life so that they turn out to be law-abiding citizens

“I want to see my daughters improve in a certain form of education.  It’s a new life and my way of living must change now because I have my daughters to take care of. It’s not easy but I will make it,” says Mr Kalala.  “I will now be safe in Belgium with them and I will see my daughters grow up.”

 

IN CONTEXT

Over the years, IOM Uganda has assisted thousands of people to reunite with their families.  Last year, 3,635 people were reunited and resettled to various countries in Europe and the United States. Of these, 178 were infants and 1,018 were children like Neema, Riziki, and Buya.

In 2017, 225 persons were assisted by IOM Brussels to reunite with their family in Belgium. 171 persons (76% of the total caseload) travelled from Afghanistan. 15 persons were assisted from Uganda and nine from Kenya. The remaining countries of origin were Pakistan, Turkey, Burundi, Democratic Republic of The Congo, Lebanon, Guinea, Rwanda and Togo. 58% were children, often travelling with one parent. 22 children had to travel alone and IOM ensured their smooth travel with the airlines or provided an escort.