One Refugee’s Long-Distance Love Story

Tony Nsola couldn’t sleep. In his Chicago apartment, he clutched his phone watching the hours tick past midnight.

It was January 23, one of the most important days of his life, and all he could do was wait.

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Tony Nsola holds a photo of his son, Kenan, in his Chicago apartment. Kenan and Nsola’s wife are refugees living in Uganda. Nsola is waiting for his family to arrive to the U.S. Photo by Brian Nordli.

At about 3 a.m., inside a hospital some 7,600 miles away in Kampala, Uganda, his wife gave birth to their first child. They named him Kenan. Nsola held him for the first time in the palm of his hand, a picture on his iPhone. It was the closest he could be to his wife, Laetitia Tudila Boko, and his newborn son. That was the sacrifice they made to start a new life in the U.S.

Nsola, 40, and his family are refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Nsola arrived in Chicago in November 2015, while his wife, son, and her two nieces and nephew, whom he regards as his own children, remain as refugees in Kampala, waiting to reunite with Nsola.

Their love is simple, nourished by constant support and communication, but their situation is complicated. They met in Kampala in 2012 at a Congolese refugee event, both victims of the civil unrest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Nsola became a refugee in 2002. He left his life as a student in the capital city of Kinshasa to search for his parents, who had moved east for his father’s work. On the bus, a group of militant rebels arrested and tortured Nsola, thinking he was a spy.

After a week of torture, one rebel finally believed he was a student and released him, but there was no going back. He had to continue east across the border to Uganda. Nsola never saw his parents again.

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Tony Nsola and his wife, Laetitia Tudila Boko. Photo courtesy of Tony Nsola.

When he met his wife in 2012, they didn’t talk much about their past. Still, they helped ease some of one another’s pain.

They moved in together in 2013, and the following year, Nsola was granted resettlement in the U.S. It was then that he learned his wife and her nieces and nephews couldn’t join him. They hadn’t obtained the legal marriage paperwork to submit to the United Nations High Commission of Refugees, and the children weren’t blood relatives. They became legally married in 2015, but it was too late for them to join him. 

It’s rare for families to be separated, said Helen Sweitzer, director of resettlement at RefugeeOne, the largest refugee resettlement center in Chicago. The UNHCR works to keep families together in resettlement if they file together. If they become separated, the remaining family members are classified as Priority 3 refugees and receive high priority for resettlement to reunite. Still, the process typically takes at least a year, Sweitzer said.

As of 2014, there were more than 10,000 Congolese refugees living in the U.S., according to the Cultural Orientation Resource Center.

The UNHCR is working on Nsola’s case, while Heartland Alliance refugee services is assisting him in Chicago, but there is no timetable, Nsola said.

So he waits, and works as an assistant chief engineer at East Balt Bakeries and sends money home. He lives for the weekend video chats, where for 30 minutes—within his bedroom walls covered in photos of grinning family members and his sleepy son—he feels like he is with his family again. At the end of each chat, he talks to little Kenan.  If things go well, he tells him in a mixture of Lingala and French, one day they will meet.

I spoke with Nsola for Rewire about his experience with long-distance love.

Rewire: What did you go through when you discovered you’d be coming to the U.S., but your family couldn’t?

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Tony Nsola looks at photos of his family, which still lives in Uganda. Photo by Brian Nordli.

Tony Nsola: When I got that message, I was excited because I thought I was going to move with my wife. When I got the news that she couldn’t move with me, everything changed. We went back home and thought about it. We decided that maybe if I’m in Chicago, I will get an opportunity. Maybe I can send some money. Meanwhile, I will work on their case. It may take us a while, but not more than one year.

If you get an opportunity to come to the U.S., and they choose you out of maybe 20,000 Congolese refugees in Uganda, maybe you are lucky. You have to take it. You cannot say, “Let me wait.”

Rewire: How difficult was that decision for you to come here first?

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Tony Nsola smiles as he looks at family photos in his Chicago apartment. Photo by Brian Nordli.

TN: My wife is a part of me. Without my wife, it is a kind of depression. I feel alone, and I think about my (parents). I don’t feel that when I am with my wife. To make a decision to not be together and to be alone again, it was not an easy decision for me. But as men, sometimes you have to face it hard to grow.

Rewire: Have they given you a timetable for when you will be reunited with your family?

TN: I don’t know, but if I think about what I did, it took almost a year to finish the process. Since they know about my case, and I’m here, I don’t think it is going to be difficult to find a sponsorship. I would say maybe within five to six months.

Rewire: What do you miss the most about your wife and family?

TN: I miss the company. I miss that sometimes you can disagree, but at the same time she will say, “You’re still my husband, so forget about it.” You just laugh with each other. I’m missing the support, and all kinds of jokes. Of course, right now, I miss the baby. I don’t even know if he’s going to know his dad.

That’s my last prayer. Really, I’m praying hard for them to be here.

Brian Nordli

Brian Nordli is a freelance journalist based in Chicago, where he writes about social issues, immigration and culture. Before returning to his hometown, he worked at a newspaper in Las Vegas covering crime, education and the city’s desert denizens. He recently spent more than a year teaching English in South Korea and traveling Europe and Asia. He hasn’t been able to shake his craving for kimchi since.