The Power of Advocacy: One Pastor’s Reflections

June 20, 2024

My mom always said she would join me in Grand Rapids. After decades of waiting in the Nyarugusu refugee camp in Tanzania, she promised to join me and my siblings, our families, and the new home we built, here in Michigan. 

We buried her last year. Not here, with our community, but in the camp.

She never left Nyarugusu. Her complications from untreated lung issues were no match for the paltry medical infrastructure there. She spent her last days without hope, yet still dreaming of joining her children in America. I always believed we would be reunited here, in my new home. Her death broke my heart. 

My family fled the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 1998 and sought shelter in Tanzania. The DRC has been torn apart for nearly 25 years by foreign exploitation and removal of precious minerals. The violence that came with extracting Congo’s natural wealth has directly caused well over 6 million deaths since 1996, and injured many more. Millions of Congolese are internally and externally displaced from their homes—to this day there is no safe place in my homeland. 

Decades since I left, I continue to grieve the same violence that displaced me as a young child. 

I spent 14 years in the camp. While there, I was always trying to find ways to help my fellow displaced brothers and sisters. I became an ordained minister and established two churches in the camp. These churches were desperately needed, as resources that could provide both spiritual and physical support to people who had nowhere else to turn. But I wanted to do more. I served as a social worker for both the World Division and the International Rescue Committee. I was always astonished by the lack of resources available to displaced people. There was never enough food, aid, medical care—nothing. 

That’s why I encourage everyone I meet to visit the camps. You cannot understand the plight of these refugees until you see their living conditions with your own eyes. They can’t leave the camps, they are treated as dangerous and wild simply for having been forced from their homes. We were not even allowed to leave the camp to trade with native Tanzanians. We were like prisoners, with no opportunity to improve our circumstances.

When I moved with my wife and children to Michigan, we were happy but faced many obstacles. If you’ve never had to live in a different country, you can’t imagine how hard it is. You have to learn everything over again! A new language, legal system, driving, how to get and keep a job. We had become accustomed to forced reliance on aid in the camp, and it was strange to be so suddenly expected to achieve total self-sufficiency. 

However, despite all of these challenges, one thing was true: we were free. For the first time in 14 years, here in America, I was free to look after my family, without needing to ask anyone for anything. We were free to go where we wished and do what we wanted. I am still grateful every day for that freedom. 

Perhaps as a result of the path my life has taken, I have always felt drawn to advocacy. In a way, God called me to it—both through faith ministry and through service to my own community. I cannot bear to see someone in pain. After my first year in Michigan, I saw how many of my brothers and sisters struggled during their initial resettlement. I began driving them to appointments, bringing food and supplies, and inviting them to community events. In 2013, I founded Restoration Community Church here in Grand Rapids. 99% of the congregants are refugees, many from DRC, Burundi, and Uganda, and they have been able to find work, love and support here in this faith community. 

Then, I became involved in policy advocacy. I was asked by Church World Service to participate in the annual RCUSA Advocacy Days in Washington, DC. I went as a delegate both last year and this one, and I can confidently say my experience has changed my perspective on advocacy. 

This year, my delegation had the incredible opportunity to meet personally with Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib of Michigan’s 12th District. She met with us for an hour, listening intently while we told our stories and explained our concerns. I talked to her at length about the struggles of young refugees who must enroll in schools without knowing English, who struggle to perform well because the academic system is alien to them. I explained the importance of options like vocational school, affordable childcare, and professional development support. She listened and learned from everything we told her, and agreed to do everything she could to help us. 

Moments like this are sometimes rare in advocacy, but they restore our hope and renew our commitment to always speak on behalf of those who cannot tell their own stories. It brings me such joy to know that a powerful woman like Congresswoman Tlaib is fighting alongside us, and I call on all Michigan policymakers to take up our cause as well. All we ask, first as refugees and now as Americans, is for dignity, safety, and support as we put down new roots here so we can provide for all for generations to come 


Pastor Banza Mukalay is a faith and community leader in Grand Rapids, MI, where he resides with his wife, Ngoi, and their four children. As a former refugee, Pastor Mukalay is passionate about engaging in advocacy to elevate the voices of forcibly displaced people in his community.