Kristen L. Byrd, Special to The Catholic Virginian

Nene Kizenge didn’t wake up to the light of dawn but to the sound of gunshots. It was Nov. 23, 2013, and Kizenge, then 31, was sleeping next to her husband. Her two sons, aged 2 years and 6 months, slept nearby. 

After shots rang out, she realized her husband was dead and she was bleeding heavily. She managed to call her brother-in-law on the phone to come and get the children, sure she would die before he got there. She survived, but barely. 

Bullets had blasted into her chest and abdomen. Milandu “Nene” Kizenge spent several weeks in a medically-induced coma recovering from surgery. She had escaped the violence in the Congo years before and fled to South Africa, only to be attacked there. 

Kizenge still doesn’t know who killed her husband, Kasay, a university lecturer, or why, but she says random acts of violence like this are common in South Africa. After being released from the hospital, she stayed with her deceased husband’s family. The situation quickly deteriorated. 

They rarely allowed her to speak to her family, and when they did, they told her to lie about her condition. They accused Kizenge of being behind her husband’s murder. Then they tried to take her children. But with the help of the police, Kizenge was able to be reunited with her sons. 

What kept her going was God. 

“I have a big faith,” she said. “I always have faith because, in myself, I trust God. I know even (though) many bad things happened to me, I have my faith to know God can do something nice for me.”

Waiting — and then opportunity

Kizenge tried to find a way out of the continent altogether. First, she went to the UN, which directed her to the Canadian embassy. There she was told she could apply to go to Canada as a refugee, but she would have to leave her children behind because they were citizens of South Africa. She refused. 

She went to the United States embassy and applied for asylum after being told she could bring her children. Then, like so many other refugees, she waited and waited as the years passed. 

In January 2019, while still waiting, Kizenge fell in love with a relative of one of her neighbors. She was renting a small room in an apartment building and selling fish and vegetables on the street. She and Denis, who she says has been very supportive, married two months later. In December of that year, Kizenge received a phone call that would change her life. 

“One day I woke up and I saw some missed calls,” Kizenge said. “I called them back and it was IOM (International Organization for Migration). They said, ‘You need to come now with your kids.’ They gave me one hour.”

Kizenge, her sons Ignacio and Jason and Denis rushed to the IOM office where Kizenge underwent a medical exam to make sure she was healthy. After passing the exam, the IOM told her she would be leaving Africa the next day. 

Though elated for a new life in America with her kids, she would have to leave her husband behind. Kizenge had applied for asylum years before meeting Denis, and Denis would have to go through the same lengthy process Kizenge did before joining them in the United States. 

“Denis told me ‘You must go’” Kizenge said. “He said, ’Maybe it is an opportunity for you, you can’t lose it, you must go.’”

So she went. 

Pregnant, alone and scared 

    They had no final destination. They only knew they would first land in New York. Once they arrived, they were met at the airport and told their new home would be in Richmond. 

Separated from her husband, Kizenge and her children were alone in a foreign land. She also learned days after arriving in Richmond that she was pregnant. Kizenge says she didn’t sleep for two weeks. She was so anxious about her situation and constantly afraid of being attacked. 

“When I arrived, everything for me was difficult because I was alone and didn’t know anyone,” she recalled. “When I found (out) I was pregnant, that was a big issue because I was alone. I didn’t know anyone; I didn’t know what would become of me and my boys. Whenever I heard someone open a car door, I was scared maybe someone can come in and kill us or steal something.”

After Kizenge felt part of a wider community in Richmond and more comfortable in her new home, those feelings began to fade. 

“I’m safe because where I live, I see no one is being killed or shot. I can go to the shop and come back by walking, and I am safe,” she said. “And since I found St. Elizabeth’s, that made me strong and happy! I’m strong and happy because now I can say I have a big, big, big family.”

‘Welcoming the stranger’

It was a chance meeting in a grocery store that led to Kizenge joining the St. Elizabeth Catholic Church, Richmond. 

She was shopping when she saw a woman in African dress. She approached her, hoping she could make a familiar new connection in her strange new world. The person she met was also from the Congo and was already part of the St. Elizabeth “UMOJA” family. She invited Kizenge to learn more about St. Elizabeth and its resources and introduced her to staff and volunteers.

“UMOJA” means “unity” in Swahili. St. Elizabeth does not use the term “refugee,” because that sets them apart. Instead, they strive to unite newcomers with the rest of the parish and show that they have found a new home in the Church. 

Comboni Sister Tiberh Hagos is the human concerns and mission education director at St. Elizabeth. 

“One of the very visible and indelible signatures of St. Elizabeth is the strong faith with the spirit of hospitality and solidarity,” she said. “Nene and all the UMOJA family are given a warm welcome, and in a short time, they feel part of the community. Each time the community welcomes a ‘stranger,’ its inner and external space is stretched and expanded to give room to the unknown. Slowly fear of the unknown gives way to solidarity and acceptance.”

Sister Tiberh remembers the first time she met Kizenge and how touched she was by her harrowing tale. 

“Her story is a story of a courageous, strong and hopeful woman who didn’t give up on her and her family’s future even when she was shot and left almost dead,” she said.

Parishioner Anne Gibbons assembled a team of volunteers to help Kizenge. They babysat. They arranged rides to church and doctors’ appointments. They call nearly every day to check in and to offer help or just to talk. They set up a gift list on Amazon in preparation for the baby. They deliver meals, diapers, clothes and other necessities.

Taking a risk 

Kizenge was only in the country for two months before COVID-19 arrived. This changed everything. In order to protect the family’s health and their own, volunteers could no longer interact with her and her sons directly. 

But one volunteer decided to take a risk. Nancy Kunkel, a longtime parishioner of St. Elizabeth who is involved in several parish activities and programs, including its social justice ministry, chose to continue to visit Kizenge in her house and be her support system.

Nancy Kunkel holds Brian shortly after his birth. A parishioner at St. Elizabeth, Richmond, Kunkel supported Milandu “Nene” Kizenge throughout her pregnancy and cut the umbilical cord following the boy’s birth. (Photo provided)

“Anne wanted to put together a group of people to form a circle of love around Kizenge and her boys, and I felt called to participate,” Kunkel said. “Nene’s story is inspiring because, despite it all, she has never lost her strong faith in God, and I think this faith is the reason she has not been debilitated by the trauma. She looks at her story in a positive light because she lived and has been blessed with a new life thanks to God. Instead of letting bad events of the past weigh her down, she lifts herself up with her belief that God is always caring for her.”

To Kizenge, Kunkel is proof that God is indeed caring for her. 

“I’ve always believed that around me, there must be angels of God,” she explained, “so when I first found Anne, and after Anne I found Nancy, I can say, ‘That is God.’ God brought them close to me. I’m saying always, ‘You are like my angels.’ God is still alive. I always believe God is true.”

Different backgrounds, much in common

Kunkel explained why she continued to be in direct contact with Kizenge and her family despite the risks of COVID-19: 

“I could not imagine how she was going to navigate getting to appointments and giving birth without someone to help her. I am in good health and, while not young, I am not in one of the highest risk age groups,” she said. “For those reasons, and because of my faith, I have not been particularly concerned about the COVID-19 risks for myself. I have taken lots of precautions, as outlined by the CDC, so I do my part and then rely on God, who decides when our time has come anyway.”

Though from two different backgrounds, these two faithful women soon found they had much in common. 

Kunkel has twins, and Kizenge has a twin brother. Kizenge wants to be a nurse, and one of Kunkel’s twins is a nurse. Kunkel’s oldest daughter once worked in the Congo, where Kizenge is from, as an epidemiologist. 

Kizenge can speak fluent French and conversational English, while Kunkel speaks fluent English and conversational French. They have conversations in both languages. 

“I think our friendship is built on respect,” said Kunkel. “She appreciates the ways I can help her understand and navigate American culture and language, and I appreciate her abilities, experiences and faith.”

Kunkel drove Kizenge to all of her doctors’ appointments, supported her while she battled gestational diabetes, spoke with her husband to keep him up-to-date and was with her when she gave birth. 

On April 12, Easter Sunday, Kunkel got the call. Kizenge was supposed to be induced the next morning, but baby Brian didn’t want to wait. Kizenge and her husband prayed together via phone, with Kunkel at her side. She stayed by Kizenge the entire labor, which lasted until 11:39 a.m. on April 13. Kunkel even cut the umbilical cord. 

‘God has a reason’

Father Jim Arsenault, pastor at St. Elizabeth, is inspired by the friendship: 

“I am seeing the face of God in the ways we become friends. We make new friends and help make a difference. Nancy and Nene have become friends. I believe this friendship will last for many years,” he said. “When we open our hearts and help others, Jesus guides our steps and we become sacrament to one another. We may not be able to receive holy Communion at this time of the pandemic, but we become the Body of Christ to others.”

A chain of tragic events connected these two women from opposite sides of the globe. Together, they helped bring about a tiny miracle in baby Brian. Kunkel realizes all the decisions that had to have been made over the years to make this friendship possible.

“I would not even know Kizenge if not for my faith and attendance at St. Elizabeth’s Church,” Kunkel said. “But beyond that, I try to live my life by the words of Jesus Christ even if, as a human being, I often fall short of that goal. My faith tells me that Nene is my neighbor, my sister in Christ, and that everything we do for each other we are also doing for Jesus.”

Kizenge is raising three sons with very limited options, made even more limited by COVID-19. She doesn’t know when Denis will be granted asylum – maybe a year or two, maybe longer. Again, she is left without a husband, and again she will have to wait. But she is neither defeated nor afraid. She has faith in the future and in God. And she has an extended family.

“If God brought us here, he has a reason for bringing us here. If God connected me with St. Elizabeth’s, he knows why,” Kizenge declared. “So I hope, I believe, that my children will have a nice future, and I will too.”