November 28, 2016

Eugene Sadiki joins iRCO staff in teaching new residents about western concepts of physical and mental health

Eugene Sadiki stands in the light of an overhead projector, in a windowless classroom of the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization.

“All of us, when we knew we were coming, were this high with joy, going to the moon!” he says, standing on tip-toes and reaching high above his head. He laughs.

“Everything is sweet,” he says. “You think, ‘I will be this. I will be that. Nothing is bad. Everything is sweet. So sweet, it’s honey.”

The  two dozen newly-arrived refugees listening through interpreters grin and nod. They know the crescendo of hope. A few, like Eugene, also know what comes next.  Sadiki is here to teach about western concepts of health, and the challenges these new residents will face in coming months.

“You’re here a couple months and you expect a job. Do you have a job?” Sadiki asks.

A few hands go up.

“You don’t have a job, and you expect a job,” he says and laughs again. He asks how much cash assistance a single person receives from the government.

“$339,” a woman says in Dari, and Sadiki writes the number out big on the a whiteboard. “What is the cost of rent for a one-bedroom apartment?” he asks.

“$650,” a man shouts.

“And you’re getting $339.” Sadiki says, pointing to the number. Then he laughs, and the class begins to laugh too, although it’s not so funny anymore.

What else can you do? Life is a struggle, so often absurd. And it’s a beautiful thing.

That’s an improbable deduction for a man born into war. A man who was nearly murdered as an infant, and again as a wartime nurse. A man forced to trade his family and his profession for the safety -- and intense loneliness -- of America as a refugee.

“Despite all the struggle, I always see hope,” he says. “I always know that after all the struggle, and the suffering, somewhere you will reach a level or a certain condition that you’ll say, ‘At least I can rejoice now.’”

Eugene Sadiki makes participants laugh during a health literacy class at IRCO

Sadiki spends much of his time meeting individual clients, many refugees like himself. As part of the Multnomah County’s Communicable Disease Services team, he monitors patients with tuberculosis and visits local shelters to screen guests. But his favorite part of the job is leading health literacy classes at IRCO. He teaches people about the technicalities of health insurance, the basics of personal hygiene, the western concept of mental health.

Knowledge is empowering, especially for people with little control over their environment, when everyone is a stranger and everything around them is strange: the can opener, the squirrels, the little white man who flashes when it’s safe to cross the street.

Much of the information is bruising; acknowledging the trauma of separation, physical pain, loss. People leave a place of suffering, and it doesn’t end when they reach the United States. Financial concerns and social isolation grow.

Sadiki had a big, loud family growing up. Siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, all shouting, hugging, joking. After seven years in the U.S.,  loneliness is still the hardest part.

“That is killing me every day, truly speaking,” he says. “Here I have colleagues, making me laugh. But once you just leave the office, that comes to you again.”

But suffering is only one, albeit inescapable, part of the story. That’s how it was for him. And that’s what he hopes new arrivals will learn.

“Normally I don’t like people to know my story. I don’t like it. I’m African,” he says. “Africans, we are resilient. We like to struggle in silence. But to show the result, after all the struggle. That’s why I’m here.”

Eugene Sadiki makes participants laugh during a health literacy class at IRCO

Sadiki was born three years after Congo gained independence from Belgium in 1960, He was a toddler when Mobutu Sese Seko took power in a coup and ruled for the next 32 years. Sadiki never knew a time when his country wasn’t war with a neighboring nation; or with itself. His village of Mulemba in the center of the country was so remote it never won recognition on a map. There was one road, no electricity, no running water. Villagers farmed and hunted.

One of his father’s roles was to pay villagers’ salaries from the government. Sadiki was seven-months-old when his father learned that soldiers were heading to their village likely to raid the local coffers. The family fled to the canopy edging a nearby river. But later, smoke from their campfires gave them away. Rebels grabbed Sadiki’s father, and his mother and grandmother pleaded for his release.

Instead, the soldier grabbed the infant Sadiki and flung him into the river. Sadiki’s mother told him the story later, said they followed, searching until they found the baby in a fallen cluster of brush.

“It was by good luck,” he said. “I was there. I was stuck there. But who would go there, because it’s a little bit deeper. But my grandmother took courage to go and find me there, and brought me to my mom.”

Meanwhile, the soldiers held his father,“They beat him, day by day,” for months until abruptly releasing him.

“It was like that,” Sadiki said, “God’s miracle.”

After his father was released, the family moved to a town with paved streets and electricity, where his father taught school and he followed. He wanted to be near his father, and learn.

Sadiki loved soccer, like most kids in the neighborhood. They would wrap up a tight ball of old clothes and kick it around until the knots came loose. But no one had to tell him to put his studies first. Sadiki wasn’t a gregarious kid. He preferred to listen, and he loved to learn.

As a child he devoured the Adventures of TinTin and Milou. Later he’d steal away with detective novels and the national news in L’Hebdomadaire de L’Afrique Centrale. Fights broke out at home when siblings shredded its pages to roll cigarettes. Sadiki’s father began investing in two subscriptions -- one for the family, and one for Eugene.

Sadiki wanted to be a doctor, but as one of 15 children, his best hope was nursing school. At 16, he applied to the National University of Zaire, 300 miles north in Kisangani.

He knew it would be years before he saw his family again.  “Especially leaving my father wasn’t easy for me,” he said. “I don’t know. Maybe because I was listening much. Maybe because I loved him too, too much.”

Sadiki would see his father one more time, a decade later on his only trip back home. They spent every minute of their 10 days together. “We were like fiancees,” Sadiki said with a laugh and wiped tears from his eyes.

But a young Eugene Sadiki wasn’t thinking of final goodbye when he left at 16, heading to school. On his way north to college, the train derailed, forcing Sadiki walked the remaining 75 kilometers. But once in Kisangani, he met government soldiers sweeping up young men for military service. They grabbed Sadiki too.

He was taken to the home of a captain, but when the couple learned of his study plans, the wife urged him to run.

“Do you know what to do if they catch you again?”  the wife asked.

“They won’t catch me,” Sadiki replied. “I’ll pray they won’t catch me.”

“Why weren’t you praying for that before?” the wife asked.

“I was praying for other things,” Sadiki said.

He prayed then for the school to admit him despite having missed the entrance deadline. And those prayer were answered.

Sadiki stayed with extended family in a neighboring town, finishing his studies and two years of teaching as repayment. He went to work for missionaries in a clinic, eventually taking over management of its operations. He went on to pursue a degree in nursing administration, met and married a woman and began working at a clinic in eastern Congo.

Then, in the fall of 1996, war erupted again.

Sadiki had taken over a health clinic in the city of Bukavu along the Rwandan border. When fighting began, many residents fled. Sadiki remained at the clinic to protect costly supplies of drugs.

Rebels called him outside one late November day, and shot him in the chest. He lay in the street, wounded for a full day, until a church member saw him.

He shooed the man away lest he be shot, and found the strength to drag himself into the hospital. Still, word spread that the clinic director in Bukavu was dead. Upon hearing the news, Sadiki’s wife fled to Kenya.

Eugene Sadiki joins iRCO staff in teaching new residents about western concepts of physical and mental health

Eventually, friends moved him to safety where he recovered slowly, quietly and went back to work as one war bled into the next. He was treating a patient when he learned his wife had immigrated to the United States through a church and was living in Oregon. She did not believe he was alive until they spoke.

“I want to come where you are,” he told her in a phone call.

“I”m in America,” she said.

“Which America?”

“The United States of America.”

“OK, I’m coming there,” he said. Then paused. “How did you get there?”

She told him the odds were long: He would have to make it out of Congo to a United Nations office in another country and join the list of millions of refugees seeking resettlement. It could take a decade to happen - if ever.  

“I don’t care,’’ he vowed. “I’ll come.”

He finally left Congo, and spent many years waiting as a refugee in Nairobi. When he was finally cleared to travel to Portland, a woman sitting next to him in the airport asked: “Where are you coming from?”

“Kenya,” Sadiki said.

“Oh, are you Kenyan?” she asked.

“No,” he said.

A flight attendant interrupted to announce they had overbooked the flight and might not have room for all the passengers to board. Sadiki shook his head and spoke aloud to himself.

“God did not say I would sleep here,” he said. “I have to see my wife today.”

“How long have you been separated?” the woman asked.

“Well,” Sadiki said, “It’s a long story.”