By Rainier Valley Corps
The Democratic Republic of Congo has one of the world’s most complex and longstanding humanitarian crises. An estimated 2.2 million Congolese people have been displaced due to years of violent conflict, further compounded by unstable governance, lack of infrastructure, and stunted economy. This ongoing conflict has caused an urgent humanitarian need for families fleeing their homes for safety and peace.
In fact, more than 35 percent of refugees who arrived in the United States in 2018 were from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Fourteen percent of those refugees went to the state of Washington in search of community and support.
Floribert Mubalama, a Congolese refugee who settled in Washington in December 2014, had a tough time integrating and transitioning into his new life. He had trouble finding housing, a living wage job, and supportive community. After only a few months, he informally started a networking campaign, to try and organize a support system for Congolese refugees and immigrants.
After meeting and working with a couple key players that work with grassroots organizations, he was eventually able to create an organization of his own, now known as the Congolese Integration Network (CIN). Floribert is its Founder and Executive Director.
“We needed a strong voice and responsible structure — to advocate for Congolese people. I wanted to create something that was from the community, for the community,” said Floribert.
Congolese Integration Network’s role
CIN provides Congolese refugees and immigrants a community. They’re a resource for housing assistance, navigating language barriers, and employment opportunities. CIN advocates for their well-being and health, and facilitate economic, social, cultural, and spiritual integration into their home in and around the Greater Seattle area.
Their ultimate goal is to ensure the needs of the Congolese refugees and immigrants are met and to restore a sense of belonging. In short, the organization sets out to recognize, protect, and empower.
One of CIN’s greatest accomplishments to date was putting on the Washington State Congolese Summit, the first of its kind in the Seattle area. The summit, which took place early this summer, was a celebration of the independence of Democratice Republic of Congo and its culture and achievements. The event also gave an opportunity to discuss important issues relevant to the Congolese community through networking, panel discussions, and presentations.
The Washington State Congolese Summit
Floribert was not expecting any more than 300 people to show up. However, approximately 350 people attended the summit. CIN has accomplished so much to this point, and the event further validated and re-energized what Floribert originally set out to do in 2015.
“I was very happy with how the summit turned out — I was surprised by the level of engagement. I reached out to all the sectors, and they all showed up,” Floribert said with a smile.
The event put a lot of emphasis on celebrating graduates of CIN’s programs, which included the Early Learning, Youth Development, and Women’s Psychosocial programs. Floribert wanted to raise awareness of and celebrate the organization’s work in empowering people of all ages and genders within the Congolese community. They even put on a fashion show to showcase two local designers, as a way to promote Congolese culture and their valuable contributions.
Floribert states that approximately 80 percent of attendees were a part of the Congolese community. He was happy to have others outside of the community join to celebrate and talk about issues concerning the Congolese community, which included community leaders and state representatives.
“One of the more important discussions we talked about, which involved elected officials, was the upcoming 2020 Census. Not many people from the Congolese community were engaged in 2010 and did not participate. This needs to change because these refugees and immigrants can really benefit from being counted and recognized,” explains Floribert.
Happy with the results and turnout, Floribert is currently working to get funding for another summit next year. On CIN’s feedback survey, he was happy to hear that many wanted to see the summit coming back. His goal is to make this an annual event.
On top of all this work, the organization is always looking forward to expand its programmatic work and to take the lead.
Being transparent, promoting youth, and motivation
CIN is Rainier Valley Corps (RVC)’s Operations Support Partner. RVC supports organizations like CIN by providing back-office support, freeing up time and energy for people like Floribert and their organizations to focus on providing more effective services and expanding their work in uplifting communities of color. However, Floribert appreciates RVC’s operations support for another reason.
“In regards to RVC’s back office support, when I ask for something, I get it. But they also help us to build credibility and trust in our community. Unfortunately, some organizations abuse resources from the community. It allows us to give peace of mind as a small grassroots organization. People can verify our work through our fiscal sponsor, and it allows us to be transparent,” Floribert said.
With RVC’s support, Floribert and CIN can expand their services and look to the future. This month, they are organizing a youth soccer tournament to take place at Tyee High School, with a particular focus on getting youth girls involved. He wants to promote physical health, well-being, and engagement with the community, a topic that doesn’t necessarily get discussed a whole lot in the Congolese community.
On a broader level, he wants this event to continue the conversation and further promote the idea of having refugees participate in the Olympics in the United States, when Los Angeles will host the Summer Olympics in 2028.
In regards to CIN’s mission, Floribert knows that there is much work to be done. He’s engaging with local government to raise awareness of the plights of the Congolese community. He’s reaching out to partners and organizing for another summit. He’s talking to clients to see what resources CIN can offer and expand their network. He’s always been a leader and driven by a sense of responsibility to organize, even before ending up in Washington.
“Back in Congo, in camp, people were always relying on me to lead or organize. When I came to Washington, everybody really supported my vision and encouraged me to finish this work. I may not be the best or smartest person, but I will get it done. I am driven and validated by my experiences. I learn by doing,” explains Floribert.