URBANA — John Matanda Tshipama was a 10th-grader living in the eastern Congolese city of Goma when he experienced the absolute terror of war.
It was 1994, and Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana had just been assassinated, a murder that sparked massive genocide in the country. Thousands of Rwandans poured across the border into his city.
Holed up with his family in their house, it became the first and only time in Matanda Tshipama’s life he heard firsthand the terrifying sound of a bomb exploding.
“All night and all day, we were just locked in the house,” he said. “That was the first time in my life to see people struggling and to see people fall and die. It was not safe for us.”
After a few days, the skirmish passed. Matanda Tshipama moved to the capital of Kinshasa, a city of 10 million mostly shielded from the conflicts that arise in a country rich in natural resources.
Soon, he earned a bachelor’s degree in economics and became a school teacher. But still, he hoped for a better life for himself and his future children. In Kinshasa, he said, only politicians become wealthy.
So he applied for a diversity visa, and six years ago, he was among the lucky few to win. And because he had a niece in Champaign-Urbana, he moved to the area and became part of a growing community of Congolese immigrants.
Even for a college-educated person who had some knowledge of English, the transition was difficult. Matanda Tshipama took a job working on the production line at Hearthside Food Solutions in Gibson City. For four years, he worked a shift from 2 p.m. to 2 a.m., and went home to Urbana to study for his online courses at Concordia University in Nebraska, from which he’s close to earning a master's degree. Some nights, he’d only sleep for half-an-hour.
“As I was working in Gibson City, I was going from 2 p.m. to 2 a.m. to get to my house at 3 a.m.,” he said. “And then I had my own work to do. I had a class to take. And sometimes, I was only going to bed for 35 minutes or an hour. And I’d been doing that for four years.
“During the winter time, sometimes you arrive home at 4 in the morning, and you only have time to sleep, get up and go to work.”
In the end, his abilities and intelligence showed. He was promoted to the quality assurance department, and then he became the production lead. And, last year, he heard about a job opening in the front office at Urbana’s Yankee Ridge Elementary, which was looking for a receptionist who spoke both French and native Congolese languages.
Matanda Tshipama, who speaks six languages, was a perfect fit.
This year, he’s finally back to where he was in the Congo. At Yankee Ridge, which hosts a French-English dual language program, he teaches French grammar to children from a variety of grades. He’s realizing the dream he set out to live.
But he knows that not all Congolese immigrants who arrive with big goals are so lucky. That’s why he has set out to change things for the booming community.
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Matanda Tshipama was disappointed.
Only three candidates decided to run for president of the Congolese Community of Champaign County.
“I was like, we are more than 4,000 here, why can only two people show up?” he said. “I said, maybe I can bring my expectations and can give my experience to our community to maybe build the community different.”
So much is needed for the community, he said.
First and foremost, newcomers need jobs. Translators are crucial when they start those jobs, including ones that know both French and native Congolese languages.
Education about local laws and customs is also crucial for people entering the country, and so is advocacy. Beyond that, a simple support system is much needed.
So Matanda Tshipama decided to run. And, after a few days of debate, he won.
Now, it’s time for him to realize his vision.
Matanda Tshipama said he wants to give the organization roots and substance. He’s establishing an office, which was donated by Lisette Mbaki and Memoire Budimbu, the owners of The Best of Africa’s Food Store in Urbana. The office is upstairs of the store, which is one of the few gathering places in town for Congolese people.
“My store, Congolese people already come here,” Budimbu said. “And if they have a problem, they can just stop by and see the president or one of the members of the community.”
Matanda Tshipama’s goals are far-reaching. He wants to establish an employment agency for Congolese people, which would include providing translators for workers for the first few days on the job. He’s hoping to work with local officials to teach the Congolese people about local laws and opportunities, including scholarships. He wants to create a tally of the exact amount of Congolese people in the county, which second vice president Robson Kiyangi is working on now.
He’s also hoping to create a fund that can lend money to Congolese people at a low interest rate.
The needs of his community are diverse. Some arrived via the diversity lottery. Others are political or war refugees, and some are here on student visas. Some have a base in English, others are fluent in proper French, and others mainly speak one of the many native Congolese languages.
But no matter what, the transition is difficult. Like Matanda Tshipama, Kiyangi received a bachelor’s degree in Congo and was planning on working toward his doctorate. Also like Matanda Tshipama, he took a production line job at Hearthside Food Solutions when he arrived while he took classes at Parkland College. He hopes to earn a degree in biomechanical engineering.
The goal for Matanda Tshipama and his fellow leaders is to make that transition quicker and easier from every angle.
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Students of varying ages filter in and out of Matanda Tshipama’s small classroom at Yankee Ridge throughout the day. And when they enter, they’re only allowed to speak in French.
Most were born in the United States to Congolese parents. Their French language skills vary, but the purpose of his class is to build on the foundation laid at home, where their parents speak French.
His students call him “Papa John,” a term of respect and endearment in Congolese culture.
That familial feeling is something Matanda Tshipama and his team hope can extend to the rest of the Congolese community.
“It’s hard when you come abroad, far from Africa, to here, to start a new life by yourself,” Kiyangi said. “So we need to let our community know, ‘You come here, you have your family here. Your family is not only who you were born with. Your family is everybody that comes across your way through your whole life.’”
Matanda Tshipama wants his people to thrive as a part of the larger Champaign-Urbana community. On Saturday, he was officially installed as the president of the Congolese Community of Champaign County at a reception at 25 O’Clock Brewing Company in Urbana, next door to The Best of Africa’s Food Store.
After the previous president passed off his title, Matanda Tshipama stood on a small stage and laid out a hopeful vision for his community.
“We have people that come from Africa with good jobs, but the language is a barrier,” Matanda Tshipama told his community. “We have people that have never worked in a warehouse, but they have to pay bills. We want to leave warehouses to go to offices. We want to be useful to this country. That’s why we need your help.
“We’ll come knock on your doors to ask what we can do for you. You can knock on our doors to ask what we can do for you. We don’t want to be a community that asks. We want to be a community that creates.”