“I had a dream when I was in the university,” said Salinas Kinga, recalling his student days. “I told my classmates, ‘I think the rest of my life will be in the United States.’ They were laughing at me, but all the time something in my mind was telling me, my life is not in Congo, it is in the United States. I believed on that.”
Kinga’s dream would come true, but only after he endured a personal odyssey as a refugee from the violence that overtook his nation during a series of civil wars that destroyed his country’s economy and left millions of its citizens suffering.
Kinga was born in the small town of Makabana, in the south of the Republic of Congo (not to be confused with the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo). He described his childhood as idyllic. The French mining company Comilog had a busy manganese mine that provided good paying jobs, making his town one of the wealthiest in the country.
“We had everything,” Kinga said. “A beautiful hospital where everything was free. And schools were very nice. Everything was nice in that city. I can say maybe 40 or 50% of the economy of the Republic of Congo was coming from there.”
In 1988, Kinga relocated to the busy commercial city of Pointe-Noire, where an uncle lived. There he attended junior high and high school, followed by a move to the capital of Brazzaville to attend college at Marien Ngouabi University. Short on money and unable to afford housing, he often slept in classrooms. “I slept on the floor. Every morning I had to get out fast before people saw me.”
In 1997, the country descended into a civil war. He tried to stay in school, but the violence was impossible to escape, especially in the city.
“I saw myself, a lot of people being killed right in front of me,” he said. One evening the military told people on the street to stop, but knowing he would be shot for no reason, he ran. “People who were in front of me, they killed them,” he recalled the horror.
“Three times I was arrested in Congo. The military put me aside to shoot me,” he added. Because he came from the south, and the dictator, Denis Sassou Nguesso, is from the north, he was ordered shot. But each time he miraculously escaped. Thus, he explained, “I say now, ‘I am from God.’”
Kinga fled back to Makabana, but the war followed him. The military attacked with helicopters and troops. “A lot of people died,” he said. “A lot of my friends. They bombed the market, and a lot of people died.”
And so, Kinga went into the jungle, where he subsisted from whatever fish, game and plants he could gather. Then, seeking refuge, “I moved from there to Gabon. From the forest, not the village. In 1999, life was very hard. I said, ‘I have no life. People are dying in the forest.’ And my wife was pregnant with my first daughter.”
After seven months in Gabon, “I got some money and said, ‘It is time to go back and get my wife and my daughter.’ That’s what I did.” Kinga walked for four days all the way back to his village to collect them. People helped along the way. He led his family back to safety in Gabon.
Kinga applied to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for help, but it took eight years before he was told in 2007 that he and his family would be going to America. They were settled in the South. “When I got to Atlanta, Georgia, I said, ‘God, thank you,’” he recalled. “It was time to focus on a new life.”
Getting started was not easy. He had to learn English while finding work. He was first employed by Goodyear Tires, but the plant shut down about a year later. Then he worked on a chicken farm in Athens, an hour’s commute from his home. Meanwhile, his marriage was ending.
“I decided I cannot continue like this,” Kinga said. “I have to think about big things for my future.”
A friend had recently moved to Maine and suggested Kinga do likewise. There he earned a GED, since even though he had been a college student in Congo, his high school degree wasn’t transferable to America. Then he entered Central Maine Community College, graduating with an art degree in 2015 while raising his children as a single father.
In 2016 he was accepted into the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and entered the petroleum engineering master’s program in January 2017. He knew very little about Alaska, but decided to come because it’s so far away. “I wanted to go somewhere I could study in peace.”
Kinga had also remarried, and with his family moved into student housing on campus. This past September he took a job with the Co-Op Market in the produce section. His eldest daughter, Jornie, has enrolled at UAF and is studying linguistics.
While thankful for what America has given him, Kinga remains haunted by the continuing violence in Congo.
“Sometimes I cry when I hear what is happening in my country. Here I am OK. I sleep well. I eat every day. I can go to work and get money. Over there, it’s very hard. Only people in the political system get money. If you are not in the system, you cannot eat. You can be killed. Just like that. How can you treat humanity like that?”
Knowing he has been blessed with an opportunity few from his country will ever have, Kinga said, “I have to fight. I have to get something from school to show my children that in life, you never cross your hands. Even if you have problems, just stay up. Stay hopeful. Keep fighting until you reach your goal. That’s what I’m trying to show people who knew me when I was suffering. In life, never stop.”
David James is a freelance writer who lives in Fairbanks. Becoming Alaskan is an ongoing series documenting the lives of immigrants in Fairbanks. Feedback and suggestions for future interviews can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.