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Paul Mulangu’s Canadian Experience

17 December 2007 at 06:34 | 1151 views

By Laura Jansen.

After six years in a Zambian refugee camp, Paul Mulangu and his two children arrived in Vancouver, as francophones with little to no knowledge of the English language and no connections in a new and foreign land.

Ten years later, Mulangu has concentrated his subsequent experiences into a federally-funded integration program for fellow immigrants from Africa --- the Centre of Integration for African Immigrants, connecting newly-arrived peoples with employment, housing, and youth and seniors’ services.

Mulangu, 45, and his two children --- a daughter, 21, and son, 17 --- arrived by plane in September of 1996 after six years spent out of their native Democratic Republic of Congo (then known as Zaire) in a Zambian refugee camp and a two-day air journey with connections in South Africa, London, Toronto, and at last arriving in Vancouver.

A massacre in the southern city of Lubumbashi, home to Mulangu and his family, on May 11, 1991 drove him, his two young children and brother south to Zambia.

Prior to the massacre, “It was peaceful,” Mulangu said.
“Life was good, I had a fairly good life.”

The Democratic Republic of Congo was a former colony of Belgium, and Paul subsequently spent much of his youth in Belgium attending to his schooling, where he was trained in chemical engineering.

Life in his homeland was good, until the massacre.
“That was horrible,” Mulangu said.

He made himself a new life in the refugee camp, which he described as being a fairly safe place with plenty to do, the community striving to help one another.

“You’d create your own farm, there’d be some teaching, every day there was some small project you’re on,” he explained.

The communal life was all he and his family knew until September of 1996, when Mulangu was at last told papers had been secured for them as refugees in North America.

“I was told I was going to Vancouver. I didn’t know what Vancouver means,” he said, adding he knew nothing of the city he was to arrive in a short time later. As a French-speaking person, he had learned a little about the city of Montréal in his studies in geography, but had learned nothing of the west coast city.

Arriving in Vancouver, Mulangu and his children --- his brother settled in Toronto --- were in for rough times.
“The time I cam here, 10 years ago, I spoke French and it was very hard to integrate,” Mulangu explained.
“There were no services for us francophone Africans,” he added.

He had a month at his welcome point to find his own living space, and to find a job. Finding a job through a job networking facility for new immigrants proved difficult, due to the number of immigrants with in-demand skills that were present at the same agency. He eventually found employment working part-time as a janitor at Vancouver International Airport.

However, a year after arriving in Vancouver, the Mulangu family suffered a setback.
“In 1997[ on Nov. 24], my house burned down,” he said. “Also at the time my house burned down I was looking for shelter, because I’m a single parent of two kids (his wife divorced him for lack of employment, he explained).”

He ceased working in order to look after his children, things becoming even more difficult. After four months he found a new home for his family, and began debating what to do for employment again.

“What I did was, I went back to school,” Mulangu said. He took a six-month information technology program at Vancouver Community College, and continued his studies for another year afterward.

“Also beside that I was learning English,” he said, adding that it was very hard for him to pick up the language in addition to his native French.

“After that, at the time I finished school I looked for a job, but I couldn’t find a job,” he said.

After employment counseling and some upgrading of his skills at BCIT, Mulangu still had hope that he could make something of himself in his new home and provide for his family.

“It wasn’t discouraging,” he said. “I had a purpose here. It’s not what Canada can do for me, but what I can do for Canada.”

Five years ago, he was struck with an idea. He could use what he had learned of the Canadian immigration system to help others integrate into the Vancouver area.

“I said, ‘Let’s start something where we can help each other,’” he said.
“The main goal is for us to help Africans. The second goal is to help people who are in the same situation as us. I understand the issue and I was in the issue.”

But creating the centre he envisioned was not easy. It was only last year that Mulangu’s lobbying for funds at last came to fruition, with funding coming from Service Canada.
When he first began, he met a woman who lent him a small office space on Seymour Street in Vancouver.
For money, he brought in what he could by collecting and returning cans for change.

“I was doing it [the centre] on a volunteer basis,” Mulangu said.

He would help people with immigration paperwork and community resources to make their arrival easier.
It was last year that the office moved to its new location, on New Westminster’s Clarkson Street. Besides the Service Canada funding, a youth program has received funds from Heritage Canada and a seniors’ program from Human Resources Canada.

The centre offers computer access, employment resources and more and now has a staff of seven, plus additional volunteers.

“It’s the first centre of its kind for Africans in Canada,” he said, and it extends its reach to people of all races.

Paul Mulangu has found success in his new home and seen many changes.

“The biggest change is I managed to integrate into Canada,” he said, “and I managed to save a lot of lives through education, and helped people to integrate into Canada.”
“So far it has been very, very successful; we started from nowhere.”

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