New country, new life: Congolese brothers adjust to surroundings in Northampton



Published: 05-31-2017 11:49 AM

Days once filled with looking for work and playing soccer under the hot sun in Burundi have been replaced with English classes, tutoring, trips to the grocery store and cultural orientation for the Ngoy brothers.

Traveling thousands of miles over two days, Olivier, 26, and Guylain, 23, arrived in Northampton from Burundi in early April.

The pair, originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, left behind their parents and their younger brother Edouard to build a new life in the U.S.

“It was God that allowed us to come here because there are thousands of people that want to come here,” Olivier said.

The brothers saw first-hand the heartbreak that came with not being granted visas.

“There was an old man who was a refugee … he had already had his interview immigration with the U.S.,” Olivier said. “The day Trump stopped refugees from coming, he died.”

“That is a memory I will never forget,” Olivier said. “That shocked me.”

The Ngoys, speaking in French, explain what life has been like in their first few weeks in Paradise City. Turns out, America isn’t quite as glamorous as the movies, documentaries and music led them to believe.

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“We believed that the U.S. was like paradise, that we’d be in paradise,” Olivier said. “When we arrived here, things were a little different.”

One thing that has been shocking is the weather.

“You can wake up in the morning (in Northampton) and it’s very hot and then it changes and it becomes very, very cold,” Olivier said. In Africa, it’s hot all the time.

People are different too, Olivier said.

“You can say hi to someone, they say hi back and they leave quickly,” he said.

He no longer knows his neighbors, something that was uncommon in Bwisa neighborhood in Burundi where the Ngoy family lived with many other refugees and foreigners.

The food in the U.S. is also very different, Olivier said. Things taste different, even food from back home like fufu — a common food in western and central Africa that is often made from ground plantain or cassava.

Although the two men’s lives have changed dramatically in the last two months, they still find time to enjoy Northampton.

On a Wednesday night, the brothers sat in a classroom in the International Language Institute.

Starting the class with an exercise, the over a dozen people from around the world filled the room with a cacophony of voices. They practiced English by asking questions like, “do you believe in ghosts?” and “when was the last time you cried?”

Sitting at the corner of the table, Guylain worked with partners and the instructor to answer the question “what is your favorite holiday?”

After a back and forth between the instructor and Guylain in both English and French, Guylain found his response — his birthday.

In between English class and work, Olivier said the two like to go bowling, play football and attend church on Sunday mornings.

On Sunday afternoons, they also tend to their plot in the community garden and have dinner with members of their circle of care, a group of volunteers tasked with helping the brothers settle into life in Northampton.

Both Olivier and Guylain said they played soccer semi-professionally in Burundi, something they’d like to do in America. Instead, Olivier works in manufacturing and Guylian in food service. When asked about their dream jobs, both brothers were realists.

“It doesn’t matter what job, I’ll work,” Olivier said. “What is in my dreams, it’s to earn a lot of money. If I can work, I’ll work. If I said, my dream job is that or that I will need an education and here colleges are very expensive.”

“For me, it’s like that too,” Guylian said.

The most difficult thing about life in the U.S., Olivier said, is making payments for rent, electricity and water.

“Here, it requires a lot of work to pay for everything,” he said.

The family didn’t always live in Burundi. Prior to their arrival in 2002, Olivier and Guylain lived in Kinshasa in their grandfather’s house with their entire family — their parents, his grandfather and his grandfather’s wife and their children.

Since their arrival, there has been talk amongst the brothers and their circle of care that their youngest brother, Edouard, 20, may be joining them soon. The uncertainty of when and if he will arrive isn’t lost on Olivier.

“We can’t say exactly when he will arrive,” Olivier said. “We don’t know if he will.”

“We will accept it the day I see him. I don’t know when my family will arrive. I don’t know the situation there,” Olivier said.

“We speak with our parents on the phone, they ask us how is the situation here. My father is sick. For me, it’s not easy because I think about a lot of things.”

Emily Cutts can be reached at