This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 12, 2012 - SPOILER ALERT: This article contains information about one subject in the Nine Network’s documentary, “Homeland: Immigration in America,” which aired Wednesday night. If you haven’t seen it yet and don’t wish to know what happened, read no further.
Justin Semahoro was just 15 when he lost his family.
Fourteen years later, at 29 and far from home, he gets closer to finding them again every day.
For more than a decade, since the night he heard his father’s voice telling him to run, Semahoro didn’t know if any of his family members survived the ethnic cleansing of their Banyamulenge village in the Congo in 1998.
He lived for about five years in Kenya before coming to St. Louis as a refugee in 2008. Here, Semahoro has rebuilt a life with a handful of other Banyamulenge refugees.
Semahoro, who was featured in the first part of the Nine Network’s new three-part documentary on immigration, “Homeland: Immigration in America,” works as an interpreter at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. He’s started Imuhira International, a group that works to gather Banyamulenge refugees around the country three times a year, to support widows and orphans and preserve their culture.
Things that haven’t changed since the documentary filmed: He still attends church. He still loves eating out. He still misses the way people are close with each other back home, and all the friends he had.
But here, he’s safe. That’s the best part.
What has changed?
Last year, Semahoro returned to Africa. It was his first time back in Nairobi, Kenya, where he lived for a decade before coming to St. Louis. And it was his first time seeing one brother and one sister who also survived.
“It was amazing,” he says. “It was amazing. It was really good. You can’t imagine knowing that you haven’t seen them for years and you thought they were dead and they were alive.”
He also met a young woman, Nyasafari, originally from Congo, on that trip, and the two are set to be married Aug. 18.
And while he was there, someone approached Semahoro and told him his parents were alive. He didn’t get too excited, he says. Refugee orphans hear that a lot. Send me a photo, he said. And he waited. No photos came.
Semahoro came home to St. Louis and worked on planning his wedding, his trip back to Africa to get married and all the logistics he’d have to wade through to bring his new wife to St. Louis, eventually.
Then, after nine months, a photo arrived in his e-mail.
It was his parents.
“I was speechless,” Semahoro says.
There they were, older, but it was them, still living in the Congo. Semahoro hasn’t been able to speak with them yet, but is trying to get them to be able to come to his wedding.
“I have been in so much problems and struggles, but I still have faith and a positive attitude on doing so many things and positive things in my life and my future,” he says.
That future includes transferring from Forest Park Community College to Saint Louis University, eventually, to study International Social Work, getting married, seeing his family, and continuing to share his story. All of that takes money, which is a struggle for Semahoro, who says it takes the support of each individual to make all these things possible.
His positive attitude is a joy to Kevin Vanden Brink, lead pastor at New City Fellowship in south city, where Semahoro and his roommates attend.
“These guys have a desire not just to build their own comfortable lives, but to make the world a better place,” he says.
Semahoro has been successful in rebuilding his life in St. Louis, Vanden Brink things, because he’s young and healthy.
He also speaks seven languages, which has helped him get his job and tell his story to others, says Anne-Marie Berger, a producer for “Homeland.”
“One of the reasons that he is successful in the United States is because he speaks English,” she says. “But he’s also willing to tell his story. I think for a lot of people, it’s very hard to go back there emotionally.”
Part two of “Homeland” focuses on jobs and will air next Wednesday, July 18, at 8 p.m., followed by part three, enforcement, on July 25.
Semahoro missed the premiere event the week before at the Tivoli because he was having a wedding party with friends and making a video. In August, he’ll take that video with messages from his friends back to share with his bride. Then, he’ll celebrate a new time in his life with her, his friends, his brother, sister, and hopefully, his mother and father, too.