After escaping from terror in Africa, Balthazar says ‘Life is easy if you put it in God’s hands'
Balthazar Matakara looks calmly across the table in the St. Vincent Catholic Charities conference room. His voice never wavers, his demeanor never changes, even as he recounts the terror of his life in Africa and his journey to the U.S.
“Life is easy if you put it in God’s hands,” he says simply. “Life is hard if you make it hard. You have to believe in God and know he will save us.
“Growing up in Burundi, I have always believed that life can change suddenly. Our history is full of merciless exploitation and atrocious control as a Belgian colony. The Belgians left brutal rulers in power when the colonial era ended.
“For instance, two of my older brothers were earning university degrees and were making good lives. When I was 10, soldiers came and killed both of them in a government purge of the educated and wealthy. Fear was always with us, but I was born to parents with big faith that God is there for us.
“When I came of age, the Belgian government offered me a university scholarship to study in Belgium. Despite my brothers’ experience, I accepted and went abroad to learn. In 1989, I earned a degree in electronics engineering and returned home to work as a technology coordinator in the office of studies of the programs of secondary education.
“I had fallen in love with a daughter of the family across the street from my family home. Alphonsine Busabusa married me and started college while I worked. Soon, we welcomed a son into our lives. According to our custom, Alphonsine’s grandmother named our child. She chose Arnaud Muhimpundu, which means give him blessings, because he was the first son of the first daughter.
“Our history of purges has led our people to change our naming practices. Instead of taking the father’s or mother’s last name – which makes it easy to find people of the same family – we gave our children different last names. Everyone in our family has a name chosen for its meaning.
“Despite the government purges and repression, Burundian people generally lived peacefully together. That changed suddenly in 1993 when the army assassinated the elected president, igniting a civil war. Many people died, thousands more were injured, and countless families fled to refugee camps across Africa. The violence was horrific, with neighbor killing neighbor, and friends cutting down friends.
“Alphonsine was attending Burundi University and I was working at a TV station controlled by the military. We knew we were targets because of our education, so we packed what we could carry with our 1-year-old son and slipped across the border into the Democratic Republic of Congo. We found menial jobs that allowed us to rent an apartment and raise Arnaud.
“For three years, we put our faith first and built our life together in Congo while the genocide and civil war raged in neighboring Burundi and Rwanda. Then one night, we found ourselves surrounded by Congolese fighters advancing down the mountains on our town. Immediately, we grabbed Arnaud and raced to the shore of Lake Tanganyika to try to escape.
“Hundreds of people of all ages and abilities crowded the lakeshore with us, hoping for a miracle. Completely exposed to the fighters, all we could do was pray and wait for boats that were coming to evacuate us to Tanzania.
“As each boat approached shore, hopeful refugees surged to board it. Too many desperate people overcrowded many small boats, causing them to sink in the deep waters. I heard their screaming and cries for help as the water claimed them. There was nothing I could do.
“After spending the night praying on that shore, we boarded a boat and made it to safety in Tanzania, thankful God had saved us. On shore, workers from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) met us and took us to the refugee camp we would call home for the next three years.
“We arrived with nothing but the Bible Alphonsine grabbed as we fled Congo. But UNHCR workers provided us with the essentials we needed to survive: shelter, food and water. Alphonsine headed a women’s group in the camp, and I farmed and did some teaching. Our daughter, Armandine Uwimana, was born during this time. Her name means belong to God.
“After three years, life became very difficult in the camp, and we decided to move to Lusaka, Zambia. While living as refugees in hiding, I started a business, the children attended school. Our second daughter, Linda Nduwimana, was born. Her name means I belong to God.
“Our life wasn’t complete. We were still foreigners hiding in the foreign land of Zambia, so we applied for resettlement, hoping to stay legally in Zambia or another country where we could raise our children and live in peace. After a few years, I left so I could work as a bench engineer at the Sound and Vision Center in the British town of Leicester, Derby. The opportunity was great, but my family could not join me.
“Before, every time we moved we had fled for our lives – losing everything then starting over. This time, I had to leave my family behind, and I feared for them. There was no way to communicate with them across the continents. Again, I prayed that God would be there for them. Over the next four years, I heard the children grew and thrived as Alphonsine raised them by herself.
“In 2004, Alphonsine got notice from the UNHCR that our family could resettle in Canada. It was the answer to so many prayers! But somehow, in the course of resettlement, plans changed. She and our children ended up going to America – to a town called Lansing, Michigan.
“For this move, instead of UNHCR workers, they were met by staff from St. Vincent Catholic Charities, who helped with housing, food, education and support in establishing their lives here. Finally, I could communicate with Alphonsine and the children through American friends! I continued working in Derby until 2006, when I was cleared to join my family in the U.S. Before long, I became a resettlement clerk at St. Vincent Refugee Services, where Alphonsine works as a case manager.
“Our jobs allow us to minister to others who come from far away – often experiencing trauma and hardship like we faced. Though we are safe and very grateful to be here, sometimes we miss the traditions and practices of our home countries. That is one reason I organized an African Mass. Since 2014, the first Sunday of the month, Father Ntakarutimana, a Burundian priest and parochial vicar at St. Joseph Parish in Owosso, has said Mass at 4 p.m. in St. Thomas Parish, East Lansing. Father Ntakarutimana speaks Kirundi and Swahili, so many Catholics from across Africa can come celebrate Mass in their own language and tradition.
“I have traveled. Jesus traveled. We have lived in different places, and speak the language of each place. I lost everything. I started over. I lost everything. I started over. My advice to everyone is, ‘Keep faith in God because this is life. Where we are born is not often the place we are going to stay.’
“All my life I grew up with people dying, and I learned that what you have is nothing. We will leave it in the end. So I never become discouraged when I lose things because I never, never let go of God. Alphonsine and I have always believed he would save us. He saves us now.
“You see? Having faith is very wonderful. Life is easy if you put it in God’s hands.” Balthazar smiles.
St. Vincent Catholic Charities is the designated refugee resettlement agency for adults and families in Lansing and mid-Michigan. Its Refugee Services assist with the basic essentials to welcome refugees to the Lansing community and help them reach self-sufficiency.
Catholic Charities agencies in the Diocese of Lansing share the love of Christ by performing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.
• St. Vincent Catholic Charities, Lansing: 517.323.4734
• Livingston County Catholic Charities, Howell: 517.545.5944
• Catholic Social Services of Washtenaw County, Ann Arbor: 734.971.9781