Healing Hearts

From left: Alex Muhire Gatoni and Boaz Rutekereza Nkingi

Writer: Rachel Vogel Quinn
Photographer: Duane Tinkey

Boaz Rutekereza Nkingi, 34, and Alex Muhire Gatoni, 24, have suffered more than their fair share of tragedy. But this isn’t the story of what happened to them. It’s the story of what they built from it.

Born and raised in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, both men came to the United States as refugees during their adolescence. Nkingi lives in Ankeny with his wife and four children and serves as a pastor at Zion Lutheran Church. Des Moines resident Gatoni works at the Evelyn K. Davis Center. Together, they founded the nonprofit Iowa Congolese Organization and Center for Healing (ICOACH).

“Healing means being able to accept what happened to me and not dwell on that,” says Nkingi, “but giving myself courage to move on in life.”

Nkingi and Gatoni are survivors of the 2004 Gatumba Massacre, in which 166 Congolese people were killed. Having fled ethnic-based violence in their home country, their families settled in a refugee camp in neighboring Burundi. Their persecutors soon followed. In the slaughter, Gatoni lost his father and three siblings. (His mother had died a few years earlier.) Nkingi lost his father and six siblings. His mother was burned alive with gasoline and spent nine months in the hospital.

The massacre left Gatoni a 7-year-old orphan and Nkingi the teenage caretaker of his disabled mother. Their religious faith kept them from surrendering to despair. They also felt it was their duty—to their late family members and the other victims—to make something of their lives and share the stories of those who died.

“There’s a saying: Nobody can tell your story except yourself. It is you who knows yourself,” Gatoni explains. “I’m not going to bring back anybody who was taken from us. But it’s time to move on with life and rebuild. That’s what kept us going. That’s what led us to ICOACH.”

Adjusting to Des Moines

Nkingi and his mother were resettled in the U.S. in 2007, and Gatoni followed two years later. They received a warm welcome in Des Moines but struggled to adjust to life in Iowa. Gatoni started middle school without knowing English, and he had to study “twice or three times” as hard as his peers, he says. Nkingi found it difficult to adjust to the culture, as well as the cold winters.

Despite these challenges, both young men thrived in their new home. Gatoni graduated from Roosevelt High School and then Des Moines Area Community College. Nkingi earned a bachelor’s degree from Grand View University.

When Nkingi and Gatoni arrived here, there weren’t many Congolese people. But more and more came in the following decade. The newcomers turned to the two young men for guidance. People knocked on their doors every day, asking for help making phone calls, reading the mail, finding transportation and visiting the doctor.

“We lived the struggle, the challenges that the newcomers are facing,” Nkingi says. “We are using our personal experiences to meet some of their needs.”

In 2017, the pair founded ICOACH to formalize the work and recruit others to help. Operating out of two local churches, the nonprofit provides day-to-day support with transportation and interpretation. It also helps Congolese Iowans learn English, develop computer and financial literacy skills, learn to drive, and find jobs and housing. In 2019, the organization launched an after-school program for youths, serving 105 kids each week.

Culturally Appropriate Services

As an ethnic community-based organization, ICOACH is led entirely by Congolese individuals, allowing them to provide culturally appropriate services. Nkingi and Gatoni in particular are seen as role models by the community.

“When we start talking to people about what happened to us and they see the joy in my heart, and in Alex’s heart, it’s really awakening,” Nkingi says. “They see that we are still going, still loving, still caring.”

Nkingi says that many Congolese people have emotional wounds from trauma, war and lost loved ones. To begin the healing process, ICOACH encourages them to share their stories and listen to what others have experienced.

“Congolese people don’t give up,” Nkingi says. “When I look back to what we have all faced, I can’t imagine that we are still going.”

Nkingi estimates that the Congolese population in Des Moines has doubled in the past two years. Since its founding, ICOACH has relied primarily on donations from friends and neighbors, as well as Nkingi’s and Gatoni’s personal savings. Now they are gearing up to apply for grants and host a fundraiser. They’re also trying to recruit more volunteers from the larger English-speaking community.

Eventually, the founders hope to create a Congolese welcome center, a place where people can come for assistance, emotional support and cultural orientation.

“Every time I’m going to help someone, it reminds me of the people who helped me when I came to this country.” Nkingi says. “I’ve learned that we all need one another. We need that sense of community, of coming together and working together for the better.” 

If you’d like to donate or volunteer, send an email to iowacongolese@gmail.com.

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