GRAND RAPIDS — Ramazani Malisawa left his war-torn homeland at age 10.
With rampant death and violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, some had little choice but to start over elsewhere. For Malisawa, it meant spending the remainder of his childhood and much of his early adult life in a South African refugee camp before he was sent to the United States.
“We didn’t know much about America,” Malisawa told BridgeDetroit, “just that America is a good country and a peaceful country.
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But he’s beginning to rethink how much more he should know after learning this month that his former coworker Patrick Lyoya, a fellow Congolese immigrant, had been shot and killed by a Grand Rapids police officer during a traffic stop.
Lyoya’s death has reignited ongoing tensions between the police department and community and Congolese immigrants and the groups that help them integrate into a new society say it exposes the disconnect refugees face in a new country.
That lack of civic education and racial context for Congolese refugees is something Malisawa and others say they hope will change to prevent more incidents like the one that took Lyoya, the well-dressed “nice guy” Malisawa said he’d worked with at a vacuum cleaner and appliance store near Grand Rapids.
“Teach us more laws and how police work here, because we don’t know,” said Malisawa, 33, who arrived in the city in 2019. “This is our new country and we don’t know anything about that when we get here.”
After the shooting, Grand Rapids police officials reiterated yearslong efforts to address racial bias and stressed in an email to BridgeDetroit that officers are trained for interactions with the community’s admittedly “diverse” population.
The city is home to about 8,000 Congolese immigrants, the largest contingent in the state, according to Bethany Christian Services, a nonprofit in the city that helps refugees resettle in America. Michigan, the organization said, ranks third behind Alabama and Texas for taking in Congolese refugees. Grand Rapids is that state’s second largest city with nearly 200,000 residents.
The 26-year-old Lyoya’s death has spurred marches and calls for justice since the police department released video footage last week of the April 4 shooting.
Mirabel Umenei, director of the African Collaborative Network in Grand Rapids, is a Cameroonian immigrant who has advocated for uniting various people from the African continent, including Black Americans. Umenei argues many of the resettlement agencies that take in African refugees don’t have enough education around racism and policing in America.
“It’s not enough to just bring people here and then drop them off after three months without giving them what they need to survive,” Umenei said. “Part of surviving in America while Black is knowing how to deal with the police when you are stopped because it’s only a matter of time (before) it happens.
“…they’re not really equipped to live life as a Black person here in America,” she said.
Umenei said many immigrants have historically had a different relationship with law enforcement.
“For us in Cameroon when you’re stopped (by police) you can leave your car and go talk with the officer,” she said, which is what Lyoya appeared to do in the video. “If someone hasn’t grown up here or already had that hammered into them that you’re supposed to stay put, hands on the wheel, they’re gonna step out because that’s normal where they come from.”
Walked with protesters in downtown Grand Rapids this evening. They’re demanding #JUSTICEFORPATRICKLYOYA who was shot and killed by a Grand Rapids police officer on April 4th.— Bryce Huffman (@BryceHuffman313) April 15, 2022
Here’s a few photos I took during the march pic.twitter.com/L7N4F3l1yl
I thought these tweets sent, but a bad connection means these photos are a few hours late (sorry).— Bryce Huffman (@BryceHuffman313) April 15, 2022
These are from the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine student-led march today in Grand Rapids #JUSTICEFORPATRICKLYOYA pic.twitter.com/XtONnWUo8c
The police department has limited its statements about the shooting, but department spokeswoman Jennifer Kalczuk noted in an email to BridgeDetroit that Grand Rapids police officers are trained for interactions with residents of all backgrounds.
“Like any police department serving a diverse population, Grand Rapids Police Department officers routinely interact with people who do not speak English, who have limited English proficiency, or who for other reasons are limited in their ability to communicate verbally,” she said. “During officers’ initial training, and in required annual training, topics of diversity, cultural competency, and recognizing implicit bias are addressed. Training standards are regularly reviewed to ensure they align with best practices in policing and meet the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA) certification requirements.”
Better preparing immigrants for interactions with police is something resettlement agencies want to address immediately, said Chris Cavanaugh, director of New American Resettlement in West Michigan for Samaritas, another agency that works with Congolese refugees in Grand Rapids.
Cavanaugh said Samaritas has been trying to add lessons on public safety, including how to deal with the police, into its cultural orientation training for newly arrived refugees.
He noted a lot of refugee camps aren’t full of western amenities and opportunities for education or healthcare, two areas where clients face the greatest needs. Refugees need English language training, mental health services, medical care and help with school enrollment.
Amid the pandemic training has been even more of a challenge “because it really is most effectively done in person and we’ve had to switch to doing a lot of that remotely or virtually.”
“The pace of life here is so much faster than what they’re used to,” he said. “One thing I’m hearing from folks is that they wish there was more education on the way police in America treat Black people.”
The refugee program is operated by the U.S. Department of State and it’s short-term. Within 90 to 180 days after arriving in the county, Cavanaugh said, refugees are expected to be working and covering household expenses for their families.
“It is very rapid. It really takes a village and you know, we say that a lot and resettlement we need lots of volunteers and cosponsors to come alongside our families that can establish longer relationships and and even provide some of this supplemental orientation as well,” he said.
Cavanaugh noted that Kent County, which operates the sheriff’s office, has been an active participant in the county’s welcome plan for refugee resettlement, which Samaritas developed over the last three years in partnership with the city. But he agrees with Malisawa and Umenei that more can be done.
“We are, as a result of this incident, trying to determine what more we can do with the community and with law enforcement agencies locally,” he said. “The incident is still kind of fresh, and so we’re not sure what direction that’s going to take.”
Chris Palusky, Bethany’s president and CEO, said the organization is offering support to the Congolese community as they grieve and is praying for “peace, unity and healing” in the community.
“Bethany is providing mental health services for members of the Congolese community seeking support and healing during this difficult time,” Palusky said. “We will also be organizing support groups specifically catering to the Congolese community in collaboration with local Congolese nonprofits.”
The officer involved in Lyoya’s fatal shooting is on paid administrative leave while Michigan State Police investigate the incident that began with the seven-year veteran of the force stopping Lyoya on a residential street shortly after 8 a.m. April 4.
The footage depicts Lyoya exiting the car and appearing confused when the officer asked for his license. He then broke away from the officer and after a brief chase ensued. The officer told him to stop resisting and to let go of his Taser. The officer attempted twice to stun Lyoya with the Taser before he shot him in the back of his head while he straddled Lyoya on a front lawn.
The Lyoya family has retained civil rights leader and attorney Ben Crump, who has demanded the officer be publicly named, fired and that he face charges in Lyoya’s death. A funeral service for Lyoya will be held Friday.
The family’s attorneys convened a news conference Tuesday in Detroit to present findings from an independent autopsy that showed Lyoya died of a single gunshot wound to the back of the head.
Crump said the lawyers have vowed to Lyoya’s family that “we would be intentional and very intense” in investigating how the encounter escalated from “a simple misdemeanor” traffic stop into what the family argues was a “deadly execution.”
“We’re going to investigate every aspect of this case and get to the truth,” Crump said.
Banza Mukalay, a Congolese refugee, said he had been Lyoya’s pastor for the past two years at Restoration Community Church near Grand Rapids. The community is home to nearly a dozen Congolese churches.
Lyoya and his family came to Grand Rapids in 2014. Mukalay said Lyoya’s family and most other Congolese people living in West Michigan came for the same reason, a better life.
“I came here to make sure my wife and kids could be safe,” Mukalay said. Like Malisawa, Mukalay said prior to the shooting, he thought of Grand Rapids as a welcoming place for refugees. His attitude has changed.
The shooting has left him worried for his family and his congregation, he said.
“When I saw this happen to Patrick, a very good guy who never caused problems with anybody, I got worried,” he said. “I have a son, he’s 16 right now and this could happen to him.”
The Congo is a French speaking country but has many other languages that are spoken frequently including Kikongo, Lingala, Swahili, and Tshiluba. English, however, isn’t one of them.
Mukalay said learning English is one of the hardest parts about adjusting to life in America.
“We don’t speak English in the Congo,” Mukalay said. “Even they used to say English is a second language. For me, English is not a second language, I can say it’s third or fourth.”
Mukalay said he’s been in America for nearly a decade and still struggles to understand English.
Malisawa said he noticed the language barrier immediately when he watched the video of the traffic stop that led to Lyoya’s shooting.
“The police (officer) noticed that Patrick couldn’t understand him well, because he asked if he understood English in the video and Patrick was still having trouble, his reply was different,” Malisawa said.
The Grand Rapids Police Department has been working for years to improve its relationship with the community.
A 2020 survey of city residents found that Black residents had lower levels of trust in police than white or Hispanic residents, while a 2017 study found that Black drivers were twice as likely to be pulled over by police in the city than white drivers and were more likely to be searched than non-Black drivers. The study was part of an effort to reduce bias in the department.
Umenei said she joined ACN to see change in the community and advocates at the city and county level for efforts to amplify the African voice to make sure leaders know “that we exist here.”
“Our goal has always been to have one voice for all of us to come to the table. So we can tackle the problems we all have together,” she said. “Can we then at least pay attention to these things or find solutions together to make this a safe place for everyone? So that’s our job, bridging that gap to encourage cross learning to encourage a brotherhood and sisterhood that is already way long overdue, a united Black community.”