Fourteen years ago, Albert Byishimo wasn’t sure he’d see his wife and young son again.
Civil war was tearing apart his home country, Congo. Byishimo, now 41, was studying at a university several hours away from the village where Esther Kinyana and their-then 1-year-old son Bienfait were living.
Because they didn’t have phones to stay connected about their whereabouts, Byishimo didn’t know that Esther and Bienfait had fled to a refugee camp in Burundi. He, too, had to leave quickly because of a surge in violent killings.
“She was trying to find somewhere peaceful to live with the baby,” he says. “Our country has been in war for a long time. Everyone thinks that ‘my friend or my wife or my husband is dead maybe,’ because you don’t know. You don’t have the communication to say, ‘I’m alive.’”
They didn’t realize they were in the same refugee camp until they ran into each other one day a few months after arriving. “It was a great, great moment,” Byishimo says now from the living room in their small apartment in Northeast Austin.
Because the family had been living in the camp for so long, they qualified for resettlement, which is how they arrived in Austin in early 2019.
Bienfait, now 15 and the soccer-loving oldest of four children, doesn’t remember his parents reuniting, but his parents’ commitment to helping others is already deeply ingrained in his heart.
When he was a child, he watched his father work whatever jobs he could in the camp while also studying theology. Albert Byishimo started a Presbyterian church while living in the refugee camp, and that church grew to a network of 13 houses of worship. Byishimo also started an orphanage to help children and their widowed mothers.
“After we fled to Burundi, we found out that many people in the village had died, leaving orphans and some widows,” Byishimo says. “They didn’t deserve to die. To still be alive, I knew we must do something for those children, those widows who were still alive, to see if we could make them happy again.”
After Byishimo and his family left Burundi, they have continued to share whatever money they had with the orphanage.
Bienfait, whose name means “benefaction” or “good work” in French, says supporting other children who haven’t been able to leave the camp is important to him now, too. “My parents teach us to help others, and it’s something we look forward to doing, we plan to do,” he says.
Until the pandemic hit, Byishimo worked at a parking garage downtown, and Esther Kinyana had a job at a food manufacturing plant. Byishimo lost his job, and Kinyana had to stop working because of her pregnancy.
In October, the family welcomed the newest member of the family, baby Gladys, whom Kinyana cradled in her arms during a recent visit. On her right sat 13-year-old daughter Gloria, who aspires to be a doctor one day, and to her left, 8-year-old son Blessing, who is already passionate about helping others, too.
“Every time Blessing sees someone on the street, he asks me why we don’t stop to help,” his dad says. “He’s always crying when we pass and don’t help. When we get food, he says, ‘Why don’t we share with the homeless?’”
Byishimo is eager to get back to work, but his car was stolen in June as they were moving to a more affordable apartment. Without a car, it’s difficult to make it to interviews.
Even though they have a new life in Austin, the orphanage is always on Byishimo’s mind. “Every friend of mine I have, we talk about those kids, always.”
The Byishimo family’s wishes:
A car to replace the one that was stolen; financial assistance to pay off their travel loan; laptops for the children; a job for Albert; iPad for Esther to continue learning English; career training for Albert; career training as a nurse or certified nursing assistant for Esther; bikes for the children; baby stroller; sheets and towels; pots and pans; dishes; grocery store gift cards; Walmart gift cards to buy clothes and shoes; soccer cleats; baby supplies including formula, diapers and clothes; and winter coats
Wish list available at Amazon.
Nominated by: Interfaith Action of Central Texas, 2921 E. 17th St., Austin, TX 78702. 512-386-9145, interfaithtexas.org
Its mission: IACT cultivates peace and respect through interfaith dialogue, service and celebration.
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