His pregnant wife had already fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo when six armed men caught up to Marcel Kabongo Mafuku.

They beat him and tortured him using a screwdriver, leaving Mafuku with internal injuries that would go untreated for months. They stopped torturing him long enough for one of the men to tell Mafuku to leave his home country and never come back. Otherwise, he was warned, he would be killed.

“I tell them, ‘I leave the Congo,’ ” the 41-year-old Mafuku said softly. “I don’t die like my father.”

That moment in 2016, along with previous threats, set Mafuku on an extraordinary journey from Africa, through South and Central America and, finally, to the United States, where his request for asylum landed him in a series of immigration detention centers.

Mafuku is now one of about 80 Maine residents to be granted asylum in the last 12 months, and one of 26,000 people granted asylum nationwide each year. But his path to safety was by no means common.

Many who make their way to the United States to escape persecution in foreign countries obtain a temporary student or travel visa to enter the country legally and then apply for asylum. Those asylum seekers are allowed to live freely in communities such as Portland while they wait for their application to be decided, a process that can take years.

Details of individual asylum cases are kept confidential, including the interviews and documentation used to prove the applicant is in need of safe haven.

However, several key events described by Mafuku were confirmed through federal records and interviews with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Other details that could not be verified, such as the threats and torture he endured, are consistent with the accounts of others who have escaped the Congo, according to an attorney who works with asylum seekers.


Affirmative grants of asylum nationwide, by federal fiscal year and by country of origin

Asylees are new arrivals who get permission to stay in the United States because it would not be safe to go home. There is no accurate count of asylees or asylum seekers in Maine, but here is the number of people nationwide who were granted affirmative asylum by year and country of origin. Affirmative means the applicant came forward to ask for asylum, while defensive means the applicant is seeking asylum in defense of a deportation action.

 

“This journey seems unimaginable and is incredibly dangerous. But those fleeing for their lives are often left with little choice,” said Anna Welch, a law professor at the University of Southern Maine who helps asylum seekers and refugees.

“Marcel’s story may no longer be an anomaly where it is becoming increasingly difficult for individuals from the DRC (among other countries) to secure valid visas to enter the U.S.,” Welch continued. “We are hearing of more and more individuals traveling to the United States through our southern border, taking weeks, if not months, to travel up from South or Central America.”

Mafuku never intended to come to Maine or the United States when he managed to escape his homeland. His original plan was to reunite with his wife, who had escaped to Brazil while she was pregnant with their first child.

But, when he could not reach her, he traveled more than 3,000 miles through eight Latin American countries before walking up to the U.S.-Mexican border, declaring his intent to apply for asylum and landing in a detention facility.

Mafuku, who found safety in Maine, still has yet to meet his son.


Top 10 countries of origin for grants of asylum nationwide in 2015:

China 6,192; El Salvador 2,173; Guatemala 2,028; Egypt 1,666; Honduras 1,416; Syria 974; Ethiopia 879; Mexico 870; Iraq 766; Iran 674. Note: includes affirmative and defensive asylees.


TROUBLES IN THE CONGO

Mafuku’s troubles in Democratic Republic of the Congo began in 2010, when he stopped supporting a charity allegedly being used by President Joseph Kabila to garner public support.

Kabila ascended to office after his father was assassinated in 2001, then survived a disputed election and last year refused to step down in defiance of term limits.

Mafuku blames Kabila for violence and human rights violations, including the killing of civilians, in his homeland. He did not want to be seen as supporting him, he said, so he stopped donating money.

“I said, ‘That is not a charity. That is not independent. It is like you work with government.’ So I refuse that,” Mafuku said. “After I refused that, the problem begin.”

At the time, Mafuku owned businesses that he said provided internet connections to customers.

Mafuku said that while he was giving money to the organization, he was not required to pay any taxes. When he stopped donating, he assured the authorities he would pay taxes, but they ended up closing his businesses, he said.

Then Mafuku joined a human rights organization in 2013, and his problems worsened.

“When they see that – again – problem,” he said, tapping his hand on the table. “They come into my house. They take all things in my house. They attack my wife, many times.”

They told his wife they would kill him if he did not work for the government. Mafuku said he was unable to get a visa to come to the United States, but he had a connection at the Brazilian embassy.

So, in April 2014, Mafuku paid someone $1,000 to get his pregnant wife a visa so she could escape to Brazil, where she remains today.

Mafuku saved up more money and applied for his own visa, but the ambassador had changed and he was denied entry to Brazil.

He tried to elude authorities, until one day when he was recaptured by six men with guns. They beat him, sodomized him with a screwdriver and threw him to the ground. One of the men stopped the assault, held a gun to Mafuku’s head and told him to leave the country or he would be killed.

Marcel Kabongo Mafuku sits in his living room in front of the Bible that he reads from every day, he said. He is a native French speaker. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

Mafuku, who is polite and soft-spoken, visibly struggled with emotions as he described the attack.

“When they beat me, I have a bruise everywhere,” he said softly, tears streaming down his cheeks. His injuries made it difficult for him to walk. “When they leave it was very difficult to go home. I called one person and he help me.”

Mafuku paid someone to help him slip out of the Congo, undetected by the government. In Kenya, he boarded a flight for Ecuador. He chose Ecuador, he said, because a Congolese passport allowed him to remain in Ecuador for three months without a visa.

He arrived in the South American country in March 2016.

He planned to pay someone to smuggle him through Peru and into Brazil so he could be with his wife and newborn son. But the smuggler he had heard about was captured. With few options, he joined several Haitians who were making the long journey to the United States to seek asylum.

It was costly and dangerous, requiring him to hire people he didn’t know to help him pass through eight South, Central and North American countries. It was particularly perilous for a native French-speaker who didn’t know Spanish or English.

He said he took a bus through Colombia. In Panama he walked for four days through the rain forest. He took a bus through Costa Rica. He had to pay someone $600 to cross into Nicaragua, where he was put in a car and driven to the border of Honduras.

Mafuku took a bus through Honduras and ran out of money by the time he got to Guatemala. He tried to use his credit card to get cash, but he was picked up by authorities, who somehow knew he had entered illegally, and held for a day. After checking his background, they sent him to a hotel for one night and put him on a bus for Mexico the next day.

When he reached Mexico, he was fingerprinted, photographed and given paperwork allowing him one week to get to the United States. With Mexican travel documents in hand, he took a bus to the California border, arriving about two months after his journey began in Ecuador.

Others encouraged Mafuku to try to cross the U.S. border illegally to avoid detention. Mafuku put his faith in America’s promise.

“I said, ‘No. I will never jump. I go to police,’ ” he said. “I go to police. Tell them I come for asylum here.”

Mafuku walked up to a border station and said he wanted to apply for asylum. He was taken into custody by Immigration Customs and Enforcement.

“On May 28, 2016, Marcel Kabongo Mafuku, 41, a Congolese citizen applied for admission to enter the United States from Mexico at San Ysidro, California, and was denied before being transferred to ICE custody and placed into removal proceedings,” ICE officials said in a written statement.

Mafuku said he, along with roughly 120 other asylum seekers, were taken to a detention center in San Diego, where he was fingerprinted and photographed. He said he lived for weeks in a room with about 30 other people. They were given sandwiches and water. And they slept on thin mats placed on the ground.

Mafuku said he was transferred to other facilities, including one in Arizona. “In the bush,” he said.

ICE officials acknowledge that detainees are routinely moved from one facility to another “to accommodate various operational demands and concerns.” But they only confirmed Mafuku’s transfer from the Otay Detention Facility in San Diego to the York County Prison in Pennsylvania.

Mafuku said he and about 80 other asylum seekers were flown – in handcuffs – to York, Pennsylvania, where they would fill out their asylum applications and have their cases heard by an immigration judge.

Even though Mafuku had been abused by government forces in the Congo, he was not anxious about being detained in America. He said he understands the need to make sure bad people don’t get into the country.

“For me, it is not bad, because you know, the problem with (Osama) bin Laden,” he said, referring to the mastermind behind the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. “The people here, they don’t know me.”

EMOTIONAL PLEA TO A JUDGE

After a month of detention in the Pennsylvania prison, Mafuku made his first appearance before an immigration judge. But it didn’t go well. He said the judge told him that he could not stay in the country because he had no documentation.

“I told him: ‘You do not know the problem I have to come here. I tell you, I will never again, in my life, go again to Congo,’ ” he recalled, a stream of tears on his cheeks. “I don’t see another country I can have protection like USA, because USA respects human rights.”

After that emotional plea, the judge gave him up to three months to put together a full asylum application. The 12-page legal document must be filled out in English. He couldn’t afford a lawyer or a translator, and he could not speak or write English. Mafuku relied on an Algerian inmate to translate his French into English for his asylum application.

After two months, he found a lawyer who would help him through the complex asylum process. Mafuku gave him a list of people to contact in the Congo who could corroborate his story and help prove to a judge that he faced real danger in his homeland.

Once he was able to lay out the full details of his abuse, Mafuku’s asylum case was postponed so he could undergo surgery to repair wounds he sustained from being tortured. He said he spent two weeks in a hospital.

ICE would not confirm the surgery, citing confidentiality.

However, ICE did confirm that on Nov. 2, 2016, Mafuku was deemed eligible to post a bond so that he could be set free while his case was being decided, but that he remained in prison anyway. Mafuku said he decided not to secure a $15,000 bail bond, because he had been told that being out on bond could delay a ruling on his asylum claim. Instead of it taking only a few months while he remained in detention, it would have taken a few years if he were free, he said.

After three more immigration court appearances, Mafuku said he was granted asylum. Still, he remained in jail for a month to allow time for someone to appeal the decision.

Mafuku used that time to figure out where he would go next. He wrote to churches in Pennsylvania, Texas and Maine looking for help. He ruled out Texas because, like the Congo, it was very hot.

He ultimately chose Maine, because he discovered he had a friend living in Portland.

He was let out of prison on Jan. 4, according to ICE’s records. Mafuku has to wait one year from his asylum ruling to be eligible for a green card, which confers permanent legal resident status.

Mafuku said he gave his friend’s address to immigration officials, who bought him a bus ticket and gave him some food. After a two-day journey, he arrived in Portland. It was a cold day in January. He was wearing shorts and a T-shirt.

“When I was free, it was very good for me,” he said. “I’m very happy.”

WELCOME TO PORTLAND

Mafuku stepped off the bus and found his way to the address that his friend had given him. No one answered the door or his friend’s phone. He was again alone in a foreign country.

But his luck was about to turn. A fellow French-speaking immigrant happened to pass by and knew his friend. Before long, he was united with his friend, with whom he is currently living.

He eventually went to the city’s social services division and signed up for General Assistance, a program that provides vouchers for housing, food and clothing.

He was referred to Catholic Charities, a nonprofit that resettles refugees, asylees and helps secondary immigrants, who had been settled in another state previously. There, he was assigned a caseworker, who helped him enroll in English language classes and job training courses at Portland Adult Education.

Marcel Kabongo Mafuku rides through the Portland’s Parkside neighborhood, where he lives. The bicycle is Mafuku’s main source of transportation to his job in Saco. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

Mafuku has picked up English quickly. He was able to tell his story to the Maine Sunday Telegram with little help from an interpreter. His caseworker, Charles Mugabe, said Mafuku is more willing than most to share the details of his experience.

“After going through all of that trauma,” Mugabe said. “You don’t know who to trust because you went through a lot of things.”

Mafuku was also eager to work and go to school. “He’s really hardworking,” Mugabe said.

Mafuku has a job cleaning the floors in a seafood processing plant in Saco. He has been riding his bike to work, roughly 15 miles each way, most of it along busy Route 1. He also rides his bike around the city, and last week arrived for a meeting with a newspaper photographer pedaling his bike and wearing a sport jacket and white dress shoes.

He continues to take English classes. He shares a small, sparsely furnished two-bedroom apartment, where he sits and reads his Bible every day.

But he is mostly focused on getting his wife and 2-year-old son into the United States from Brazil. He has submitted applications for their reunification, a process that could take another year or so. He said he talks to them every day through WhatsApp, an encrypted online messaging service.

Looking back on his journey, Mafuku said he never would have come to the United States if he was able to speak Spanish. He would have stayed closer to his family.

But now, he’s happy he came, especially to Portland, he said. And he continues to marvel at the little things that sometimes only a newcomer can see – how Portlanders go out of their way to help him and say “hello,” or how they stop their vehicles when he’s waiting to cross the street.

“If, in the world, I see the good people: It is here,” he said.


WHAT IS ASYLUM?

Asylum is given to people who have suffered – or fear they will suffer – persecution in their homeland because of their race, religion, nationality, membership to a particular social group or political opinions. Someone granted asylum, as well as any eligible spouse or child, may remain and work in the United States and may eventually achieve lawful permanent resident status. It does not, however, make one a U.S. citizen.

What is the difference between an asylee and a refugee?

Both have permission to be in the United States for their safety and security. A refugee gets approval to live here before arriving and is resettled with government support, while an asylee comes to the U.S. on his or her own and then seeks permission to stay.

How do asylees get here?

Asylum seekers may enter the United States legally on a temporary visa – student, visitor or otherwise – and then apply for asylum so they can stay. Such people may present themselves at the border and declare their desire to apply for asylum, or enter the country illegally and then apply for asylum. Immigrants must apply for asylum within a year of arriving in the United States.

Are asylum seekers screened?

Yes. Applicants must prove their claims about being persecuted in their homelands, including by providing detailed accounts, dates, times and locations and by providing documentation, including affidavits from friends or family members. They also are subject to interviews with immigration officers and court hearings.

The 12-page application includes personal information about the applicant, spouse, children and family members, as well as previous addresses, employment history and any affiliations (past or present) with any foreign or domestic organizations.

They must submit to biometric screening, which includes fingerprinting and photographing. Their information is checked against databases maintained by the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice and Department of State.

How long does it take?

For those in detention, an asylum case can be determined in a matter of months. But for those who are not detained, such as those who arrived with visas, the process can take years because of backlogs at immigration courts.

Can asylum seekers work?

Not for the first six months, at least, after filing an application, and it often takes much longer than that to get a federal work permit. That delay means many asylum seekers turn to Maine’s General Assistance safety net to help pay rent and provide other necessities while they wait for a work permit.

Why can’t they work sooner?

The U.S. Congress added the waiting period as a way to deter immigrants from abusing the asylum process by coming to the United States just to work as long as they can while their application is processed.

How many people seek asylum each year?

In 2015, 126,573 asylum applications were filed nationwide, according to the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review.

It is not known exactly how many Maine residents have applied for asylum, although Maine has seen a dramatic increase in the number people who come to Maine legally with temporary visas and then apply for asylum to stay. In August, 745 asylum seekers were receiving General Assistance from Lewiston or Portland, the two cities with the largest populations of asylum seekers in Maine. Some asylum seekers do not seek help with rent and other expenses and would not be included in that number.

How many people are granted asylum each year, and how many are denied?

More than 84,000 applications for asylum were filed in the United States in 2015 by immigrants who were not in the midst of removal actions.

A total of 40,062 cases were completed, with nearly 16,000 approved, 20,840 rejected and 3,223 cases dropped.

What changes have been made or proposed that would affect asylum seekers?

At the national level, the Trump administration issued new guidance to the asylum offices in February about how to decide if an applicant has a credible fear of persecution or torture at home. Immigration advocates have said the guidance will make it more difficult for immigrants to win asylum, but it is unclear what impact the new guidelines are having on asylum cases.

In Maine, Gov. Paul LePage has pushed to cut off state-funded financial assistance to asylum seekers. A 2015 state law kept Maine’s General Assistance program accessible to asylum seekers, but set a 24-month cap on eligibility that may affect a relatively small number of recipients.


THE DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO

The Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is the second-largest country in Africa, is rich in minerals but is hobbled economically by corruption and conflict.

Political instability, including a coup, rebellions, a presidential assassination and now, delayed elections, have cast a shadow over life in the Central African nation since 1960. Additionally, the Congo is home to the longest-ever United Nations peacekeeping mission, and that has been marred by allegations of sexual assault, particularly against children.

Congolese suffer from the multiple effects of conflict and poverty, including AIDS, malnutrition and piecemeal basic services. About 3.8 million Congolese were internally displaced as of July, with most of them fleeing violence between rebel groups and national armed forces, according to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

French is the official language, and several Bantu languages are also spoken. About half the population is Roman Catholic.

The Congo’s rain forests and the Congo River are home to an impressive diversity of wildlife, including primate species such as chimpanzees and gorillas, elephants, white rhinos, hippopotamuses, crocodiles, leopards, boa constrictors and 1,000 types of birds.

Cultural reference: The 1951 Humphrey Bogart/Katharine Hepburn movie “African Queen” was filmed partly in the Congo.