GREENSBORO — With balloons, bouquets and banners they waited for the four refugee siblings, whose mother’s plea for help from Elon University’s law school paved the way to get them here just before midnight Thursday.
It would be a trip that would take the four young adults thousands of miles and through a bounty of red tape that stretched from the African country of Angola to Washington to get to their mother and youngest sister in America. In Greensboro.
And then suddenly there they were, at 11:51 p.m., running down the concourse at Piedmont Triad International Airport.
Each was drawn into Lunzitisa Kaninda’s grasp.
Soon, she had gathered them all — Jonathan, 21; Guynette, 20; Fortuna, 19; and Sharon, 17, along with Divine, 15, who has been here with her — into a tight group hug full of sobbing that lasted minutes.
Then Kaninda could not speak.
Her French-speaking children did so haltingly, through an interpreter.
“I have so much emotion,” Jonathan said. “I cannot find the words.”
The reunified family was last together in 2007 in their native and war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo. The older children were away when the military forced Kaninda and Divine to flee the family home. The older children were out celebrating Christmas night with their young friends. Their father has yet to be found.
“It’s real clear there is a mixture of sorrow as well as joy,” said a teary-eyed Heather Scavone of Elon’s Humanitarian Immigrant Law Clinic as she held a “Welcome” sign. “They are confronting the separation that has robbed them of the time they cannot get back.”
The refugee resettlement group Church World Service is sponsoring the family, but students at the Elon University School of Law worked to gather and provide the necessary legal paperwork to meet immigration requirements.
After arriving here in 2013, Kaninda applied for help from the free clinic. Over the years, she sent money back to her children in Angola, a country that borders the Congo. The youngsters were able to cross together and settle there though under unstable conditions.
For the lawyers-in-training at the clinic, family reunification can be tedious work with lots of potential obstacles, such as obtaining birth certificates when families were forced to flee their homes with just the clothes on their backs.
Millions of people have died in the Congo in the decades of fighting there. Kaninda, who commutes to an out-of-town job at a chicken plant, was luckier than most. The clinic has a waiting list of 200 people at any time. It also can take years to get these cases resolved. Hers took about a year and a half — Scavone said the U.S. Embassy in Angola had been especially helpful.
Still, anxiety abounded until the last minutes.
The group of siblings was to be here on an earlier flight this week, but when they got to the airport they weren’t allowed to board the plane because the embassy had stamped an expired date on their paperwork.
“We all returned to the house crying,” Sharon said.
Two days later, the embassy had corrected the paperwork and rescheduled their flight.
Over the years, the family members have been able to communicate through social media. But on this night, they were all within reach of their mother and baby sister. Divine was just above their knees the last time they saw her. Now, she towers over each of them.
So they hug her some more.
“I don’t think I’m going to school tomorrow,” Divine said.
As they left the airport, there was talk of Divine helping them with English, of their mother cooking “everything” and of things only said in French that came with a lot of laughter.