Former refugee provides support to Salem’s newest families

When Sifa Kipanga meets families of refugees at the airport, she greets them in their home language.

Many of them come from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where she’s from, or the neighboring east African country of Burundi.

“Congo and Burundi, we can talk Swahili. We are neighbors,” she said. 

Kipanga speaks Swahili, Lingala, French and says she’s still learning English. Her language skills make her an asset to Salem for Refugees, where she provides services that she herself needed when she first arrived in Salem in 2018.

The local organization received a nonprofit designation in 2021, and has worked with 470 refugees since its founding in 2016, according to its website. 

The agency, which was established with help from the Salem Leadership Foundation and Salem Alliance Church, has expanded in recent years. It recently became an affiliate of World Relief, an international Christian organization that connects Salem with additional cases. 

Between October and March of this year, Salem for Refugees resettled 100 people from Afghanistan. 

Kipanga is one of six case managers there, and one of two from the DRC. Their work aims to help incoming families stabilize and set them up for future success, said Elijah Penner, direct services manager.

“Housing, employment, health, all the different things, public transport. And Sifa walks alongside her families and is a great example of that for our teams,” he said.

A major part of Kipanga’s job is helping people navigate the challenges that come with a new culture and system of services. Many families have challenges with budgeting, Penner said.

“In a refugee camp, you aren’t ever paying for anything. So coming here and the concept of all the different utility bills and even food, what it actually costs, and insurance and all these concepts that are maybe a little bit foreign to them when they first arrive,” he said. 

They’re challenges Kipanga knows well, having lived in a refugee camp in Tanzania for 17 years.

Kipanga was at Nyarugusu, one of the largest refugee camps in the world. It had over 139,000 people from DRC and Burundi living there as of 2017, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency.

Colonialism, internal violence, political corruption and food insecurity have led 5 million people to be displaced within the DRC, and has driven over 1 million to seek asylum elsewhere, according to the agency.

“People lived in a small house, I don’t have pictures,” she said and laughed. The United Nations gave her family bricks to build a three room house, with two pieces of sheeting for the roof.

At the time, she and her husband had six children, the oldest now 22 years old. She gave birth to a seventh in 2020 after coming to Salem.

At the camp, she said they were given ration cards that she said worked like food stamps, enough for 100 kilograms of corn flour, 27 kilograms of beans, 10 kilograms of soya for porridge and a gallon of cooking oil per month. 

“Other things like vegetables, you need to do by yourself,” she said and laughed. They were also given a bar of soap per person. “That’s the refugee life.”

When she arrived in Salem in 2018, she said the biggest and most time consuming challenge was navigating public transportation. She worked weekends, and there was no bus service on Sundays.

“Sometimes, if your kid (missed) the bus, how you can take her to school. How you can go to your job,” she said. She was grateful that her husband spoke some English, and was able to get a drivers license within three months.

In 2020, Kipanga was working at Don Pancho packing tortillas when Salem for Refugees approached her with a job offer.

She had previously worked at the Immigrant and Refugee Service Corps while at the Tanzania camp, working to empower women and children and helping them access services. That experience, plus her language skills, made her an asset.

Salem for Refugees asked her if she could work with families speaking Swahili and Lingala, and advocate for them by translating to the organization in French. She accepted.

“Because when I first came to the U.S., I had a lot of trouble related to the new life environment. Through that time, I had two volunteers help me adjust,” she said.

With every family, she welcomes them at the airport and shows them around their new home, explaining the appliances. She helps them get documents together, connects them with healthcare options and enrolls their children in school. 

She said her job comes with its challenges, like answering late night calls or being someone’s first call when they get sick. But she’s happy to help.

“I love my job,” she said. “I like Salem, it’s quiet. People (are) nice, they’re kind.”

Contact reporter Abbey McDonald: [email protected] or 503-704-0355.

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Abbey McDonald joined the Salem Reporter in 2022. She previously worked as the business reporter at The Astorian, where she covered labor issues, health care and social services. A University of Oregon grad, she has also reported for the Malheur Enterprise, The News-Review and Willamette Week.