‘Reaching dreams in the Congo was impossible, in Ireland it’s exciting’

Serge Kanyamuhanga arrived from the Congo via Uganda in 2013

Serge Kanyamuhanga, from the Democratic Republic of Congo via Uganda, now living in Portlaoise. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons / The Irish Times

Serge Kanyamuhanga, from the Democratic Republic of Congo via Uganda, now living in Portlaoise. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons / The Irish Times


Serge Kanyamuhanga was halfway through a normal afternoon at school when suddenly the sound of gunshots began echoing through the building. Panic spread as students and teachers began to run for cover, trying to escape the clutches of armed rebel soldiers. Sixteen years old at the time, he remembers running through the crowd searching for his 12-year-old brother Giresse.

“There was no way to escape, everywhere was surrounded by soldiers. The boys were taken away and teachers were arrested. We were brought to a camp and were so scared because we knew we were there to join an army. We were taught how to hold a gun, how to fire a gun, how to fight against the Congolese army.”

Kanyamuhanga had heard about the violence spreading across the North Kivu province where his family lived in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. However, he had hoped their hometown would be spared the brutal violence and kidnappings witnessed across so many parts of the DRC.

“The violence started far away; we didn’t realise it would hit us. Life was ordinary up until then, we were just a normal family living together. Until the violence arrived in our province we didn’t realise how serious it was.”

After a couple of weeks in the camp, himself, his brother and a group of other teenage boys formulated an escape plan after they heard the training area lay close to the Ugandan border. “We realised that if we had the opportunity to run, we could make it to the other side. We waited until some of the soldiers had gone out on a mission to fight and then started running. It was the middle of the night and we were so scared because we knew the minute we were found we were dead.”

Camp conditions

The teenage boys successfully crossed the border into Uganda and made their way to a refugee camp. However, conditions in the camp were poor and Kanyamuhanga was worried about his younger brother’s health and safety. “It was very stressful knowing I was the only person there to look after him. There were thousands and thousands of refugees in that camp. We stayed for a while but realised we had to leave because it was too difficult to survive, there was no food. It wasn’t a safe environment and there were diseases everywhere so we went to Kampala. ”

Once they reached the Ugandan capital, Kanyamuhanga and his brother began searching for a Catholic Church. “I hoped the church could be a safe place for us. We went to the morning service and explained our situation and they gave us a place to stay.” The boys spent three months in Kampala and in March 2013 the parish priest arranged to bring them to Ireland. The teenagers were brought straight from Dublin airport to a centre for unaccompanied minors.

In August 2013 the boys were transferred to a foster home in Portlaoise and the following September they began school. Kanyamuhanga went into fifth year while his younger brother began first year at Portlaoise College. “Getting used to the foster family wasn’t easy at first but it was just a matter of trying to fit in. The only thing we wanted was to be in a safe place where there was no war, no killing and no violence.”

Kanyamuhanga loved being back in school and says his fellow students were very friendly. “Studying in Congo was very difficult with the violence. Reaching your dreams was almost impossible but here it was exciting. I had always dreamed of becoming a doctor and working in a hospital. It was my dad’s dream for me.”

Facebook contact

It was around this time that Kanyamuhanga eventually contacted his family after he found his uncle on Facebook. He discovered that his mother, three sisters and three brothers had fled the country shortly after the boys were kidnapped and travelled to South Africa. Kanyamuhanga’s father, who also left the DRC, went missing en route after he returned to the Congolese border in the hopes of finding his two missing sons.

“He was trying to see if there was any way he could find us in a refugee camp. At that point they thought we were probably dead. There was no hope, so many people had been killed.”

Kanyamuhanga’s social worker suggested he apply for family reunification to bring his mother and siblings to Ireland. The process took three years but in May 2017, the family was reunited in Dublin airport.

“We were so excited to see them again. We hadn’t even met my youngest brother because he was born after we left. The social worker helped us get emergency accommodation in Blanchardstown and we had three months to find a place to live.”

Shortly before the family arrived in Ireland, Kanyamuhanga’s mother tracked down her husband in Mozambique. Kanyamuhanga submitted a second application for his father and in December 2017 he arrived in Ireland. The family is now living in Portlaoise and Kanyamuhanga, who is in his second year of studying science, has taken a year off college to help his family settle in.

College fees

Even though the family are finally back together, life is still challenging for Kanyamuhanga. After scoring 400 points in his Leaving Cert in 2015, he was initially unable to accept his place at Trinity College because of the cost of international fees. As a refugee, he needed to have spent three years or more in Ireland to qualify for free third-level education. Kanyamuhanga, who had already secured a scholarship from the One Foundation, was eventually accepted at the cost of an EU student after pressure from a number of student-support groups. However, it took until December of his first year to finalise his enrolment.

“I kept going to classes even though it took three months to sort out the fees. I didn’t want to fall behind but I couldn’t access the library. I also had no student card and had to commute from Portlaoise every day, it wasn’t easy.”

Two years on, Kanyamuhanga is eager to complete his degree followed by a masters and PhD. His younger brother Giresse will sit his Leaving Cert in June and hopes to study business at college.

“When my family was separated we were always worried about each other, we never knew if the others were alive. We can now help each other if there’s a problem. The fact that we’re together now is a relief, we don’t need to worry about what happens next.”