Liliane Lemani’s infant daughter lay lifeless on the floor. A rebel in the Democratic Republic of Congo had slammed the child down and stomped on her tiny body.
Lemani was 23, pregnant again and herself badly beaten. She’ll never forget what she saw that night, 14 years ago, when militants burst into her home while her family slept. Three of the men raped her niece and left her for dead. Her husband was dragged from the home and beaten. Lemani and her baby hid in the house until the men found them and demanded money, jewelry, something of value.
She had none. So they snatched her baby from her arms.
The story is a hard one, but Lemani, a Congolese refugee who’s living in Kansas City, has told it many times now. Its horror brought her help from strangers and for years has fueled her drive to find a better life for her family. Last month the story conjured new hope for her from area business people and won Lemani a competitive small business grant to support her American dream of opening her own dressmaking boutique. Orders are pouring in.
Draped in an African-print caftan one recent afternoon, Lemani scooted a chair up to her sewing station in the garage of her KCK home. Her fingers easily guided brightly printed fabric through the bobbing needle, and her red-colored lips spread into a smile.
Amid the comforting hum of the machine’s motor, Lemani, 36, recited a life of sickness, death, torture, murder and running — seven-months pregnant, with an infant and her badly beaten husband in tow — through the Congo bush.
TERRORIZED BY REBELS
The night she ran from her village was not the first time she and her family had been terrorized.
“I left Congo because of the insecurity and fighting, and they were killing people everywhere,” Lemani said. “We don’t know where the rebels come from, who they are.
“They would come and force you to give them whatever they want. They took our cow. If you don’t have anything, they kill, they burn your house. Innocent people there are dying for nothing.”
Lemani and her husband, Emerie, were startled from their sleep that dreadful night by what sounded like an explosion. “My husband told me to hide with the children.”
When the intruders left, Lemani picked up her daughter from the floor. “I cuddled my baby” and went looking for her husband. “I thought maybe he was dead.”
First she found her niece unconscious. “I left her because I thought she was dead and there was no way I could help her. I thought if the rebels came back maybe they would kill me too.”
Lemani ran. She found her husband tied to a tree, moaning in pain. The couple walked for a day and a half to finally reach a police station, where Lemani told her story for the first time. It’s also where she learned that the baby girl, Lilia, whom she cuddled the whole way, had been dead for quite some time.
“I was very sad. The first time I saw a dead person it was my own child,” Lemani said. The trauma sent Lamani into labor. She delivered her second child — two months premature — at the station.
Police sent the family back into the streets. They found help at a nearby Catholic church.
“They gave us everything we needed: clothes, money, food, medicine. … We stayed three days.” But they worried that the rebels would find them, so they left the church.
A train ride away — on the border of Congo and Zambia — they were homeless, sleeping in the train station and begging strangers for food. “There was a time I thought there was no hope,” she said
Lemani told her story to a truck driver, about the tiny baby she carried wrapped in a blanket. He drove them more than 1,000 miles to a refugee camp across the border in Namibia, where they all were hospitalized for weeks.
A REFUGEE WITH AN AMERICAN DREAM
At the time, more than 10,000 people from Angola, Burundi, Rwanda, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo found refuge in central Namibia’s dusty Osire settlement. There, Lemani and her family were given a small house, “mattress, blankets, clothing and every month corn powder and beans. Everything they give to you,” she recalled. “But you can’t have job. You can’t go anywhere. Even if you wanted to go out, what are you going to do? You don’t have money.”
Life in the refugee camp, she said, “was hard,” but safe. And it’s where Lemani learned to sew, through a school for women supported by the United Nations. “I thought if I can learn something, maybe I can find a job.”
It’s not all she learned. When Lemani arrived in the camp in 2005, she spoke Swahili. She learned English in classes, plus several other languages, including French and Portuguese, from other refugees. Today she speaks seven languages and works sometimes as a translator for Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas, the group affiliated with the U.S. Conference of Bishops that helped her family settle in Kansas City, Kansas.
After seven years in the camp, Lemani applied to the United Nations High Commission for an invitation to come the U.S. “My dream was to have a better life,” she said. “I told them my story. I told them I need job. I want to go somewhere.”
She waited five more years in Osire, sewing and selling to Namibian residents “so I could buy fish to feed my family,” she said. She also traded some of what she made, for clothing and supplies. In January 2017 the family, which now numbered six children, was accepted into the refugee resettlement program.
“We were happy. But it wasn’t like screaming and dancing because we are scared too. We don’t know where we are going.” Her niece, who survived the attack 14 years ago, remains in Namibia.
In the last decade, 4,300 refugees have resettled in Kansas City, the majority of them Somalian, Burmese, Congolese and Iraqi.
But the Trump administration has cracked down on immigration and banned refugees from mostly Muslim countries. The number of refugees resettled in Kansas City dropped from 745 in 2016 to 479 the following year. On the Kansas side, Catholic Charities resettled 386 refugees in 2016. This year: 166.
Jasmine Baudler and Jenni Kornfeld, employment services specialists with Catholic Charities, met Lemani about 30 days after she and her family arrived. Lemani, like other refugees, took out a loan to pay for the flight to the U.S.
At first meeting Baudler knew, “she was an incredible woman. She is very professional and has so much wisdom.”
“Liliane was someone unique and very positive, even with all that she had been through,” Kornfeld said. “She came to the U.S. with some English. Not everyone comes with that. We said, OK, she is special.”
With the help of Catholic Charities, Lemani first worked cleaning schools and churches. It’s important, Baudler said, “to give them their first job in America. But I didn’t want them to be cleaners forever.”
Baudler and Kornfeld helped place Lemani with the nonprofit Rightfully Sewn, which helps at-risk women become seamstresses. It’s where Lemani honed her sewing skills and learned to use industrial American machines. She landed another job, repairing clothing.
“Ever since she arrived, she talked about starting a business,” Kornfeld said. “It was always Liliane leading the way and us just trying to support her.”
Lemani joked that maybe she was born to sew. Her father had been a tailor in Congo before he was kidnapped by by rebels. Her mother had died after a long illness and Lemani was left to care for her two younger sisters. When she married, she brought them with her. She was 18.
THE REFUGEE BECOMES THE EMPLOYER
Today Lemani says she is happy to be in the United States — Kansas in particular. “I feel safe,” she said. “My family is safe. My children are in school. Yes I am happy.”
The garage in the house she and her husband rent is filled with clear plastic containers stacked high on shelves. They’re loaded with brightly colored, traditional African garments in some form of completion that Lemani or other seamstress — refugee women she’s hired — have sewn there for her company, African Designs by Liliane and Amisi.
Lemani lives upstairs with her husband, their children — they had a seventh two years ago after moving to KCK — and her two sisters. Laughter, mixed with the pounding of small feet running across an upstairs room, can be heard faintly in the garage from time to time as Lemani works, sometimes late into the night. She doesn’t sleep much, she said.
There isn’t time.
Orders for her custom-designed African clothing are pouring in, from as far away as Arizona, Seattle, Texas.
“They are finding out about her operation,” Baudler said. “She found her niche.” Lemani said there are not a lot of places in the U.S. making traditional clothing for African women. “She takes their measurements, and tailors to their body type.”
Baulder said often Lemani has more orders that she alone can fill. She has started hiring and training other refugee women who need a job and may have trouble standing because of a past illness or injury.
“She is trying to be a strong businesswoman, and she is very good at it,” Baulder said. “I see her business growing year after year. She is going to be very successful.”
The women who have worked with Lemani over the last two years say that what she has accomplished in such a short time is remarkable. But they also say they are not surprised refugees could come to the U.S. with minimal knowledge of the culture and not much more than the clothing they wore and succeed fairly quickly.
“I think that what people don’t know about refugees is that they are incredibly resilient,” said Kasey Featherson, director of immigration and refugee services at Catholic Charities. “They bring a lot of skill and talent to this country.”
Some had been professionals before fleeing their country to escape war and other dangers. “They come with an eagerness to contribute and provide for their families and give back to the community that welcomed them.”
Moreover, she said, “they are incredibly hard working. Liliane is a gleaming example of that.”
Perhaps, Lemani said, but “I didn’t always know if it would ever happen.” But she dreamed it anyway.
Then this fall Lemani placed second in a small-business grant competition.
Last month at the Gem Theater, on World Entrepreneurship Day, Lemani stood before a table of judges and onlookers telling her story with the hope of winning a grant. Her mentors at Catholic Charities had persuaded her to enter the business pitch competition, sponsored by Kansas City’s AltCap, which helps small businesses launch. She was one of 45 applicants to make it this far in the competition. She was vying for as much as $10,000.
“She was the only applicant to come in without a PowerPoint,” said Davin Gordon, a business development officer for AltCap.
“She just stood up and talked and you could hear a pin drop in the auditorium. Her story was so compelling. She came to this country with so little, a language barrier, six children and to be able to do so much in such a very short time. It gave me goose bumps.”
In the two years since arriving in Kansas City, Lemani has saved every penny she could and, one at a time, purchased seven sewing machines. The $5,000 she won in the competition will help her afford an embroidering machine, and it frees up other money to go toward eventually getting another space.
Baulder, who put together Lemani’s video entry for the grant, said she too finds Lemani “inspiring. I know I was supposed to be helping her, but she is the one helping me and she doesn’t even know it,” Baulder said. “She inspires me to keep going, to keep doing what I’m doing.”
(Article written by Mara Rose Williams)