A 21-year journey ends in citizenship

Colette Mutongo, 49, from Democratic Republic of Congo, became a U.S. citizen Thursday, Jan. 17 at the James A. Byrne Federal Courthouse in Philadelphia. – ABDUL R. SULAYMAN/TRIBUNE PHOTO

Her journey began more than two decades ago and 6,000 miles away - in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where she left friends and family - all in an effort to become an American citizen.  

“I feel calm and quiet,” Colette Mutongo told the Tribune when the big day arrived. “I didn’t expect it to be full like this.”

More than 25 countries were represented at the United States Citizenship Immigration Services naturalization ceremony Jan. 17 in the James A. Byrne Federal Courthouse. Judge Joel H. Slomsky presided.

“This is a great day in the history of the United States courthouse here in Philadelphia,” Slomsky said. “It’s the day when many of you are becoming citizens of the United States and joining our family of citizens.”

Mutongo’s eldest daughter traveled from Virginia to witness this event.

“Today is a special day for my mother because she is finally being oathed as an American citizen,” Murine Lusakweno said. “It’s an honor, considering the fact that she’s been here for at least 21 years without her citizenship, and now finally getting it. It opens up many more doors to her.”

In 1992, Mutongo and her former husband came to New York. He was a student at Union Theological Seminary of New York. He did not want her to get a degree, so she stayed home. However, she did learn English at a local church.

“When I first came, I was not happy,” Mutongo admitted. “When we came to the school, we had to walk in Manhattan. I see the homeless men and they smell of pee. The smell was so bad I said, ‘I’m not staying. I have to go back home.’ Back home, at the time, was very nice. Everything was okay. Finally, I said, ‘It’s like my home now.’”

Soon after her husband graduated, the couple visited the Valley Forge area and decided to raise a family there. Initially, they stayed in King of Prussia with a man named Ivan George—a clergyman at Grace Baptist Church of Germantown. For 16 months, George and his wife took the couple in and helped them with their first child, Murine.  

“When he finished school, and after his vista expired, we had a hard time to get another vista,” Mutongo recalled. “We applied, applied, applied. We went to one lawyer and we give money--$2,000 to start to do the process for us to get the green card, then the lawyer just run away with the money and was gone. Ever since that day, we never found him.”

Fifteen years and three children later, the couple started the process again to get their green cards with a different immigration lawyer. They were then able to move to Philadelphia and buy a house.

Mutongo has been a member of Grace Baptist Church for 20 years. She praised the members for their support.

“The church has become like a family to me,” she said. “I don’t have nobody here, but the church family became like my family. They struggled with me to get my green card. They come together. They collected money. They [found] a lawyer. The church [even tries] to learn my language.”

Mutongo speaks five languages; Lingala (Congo), French, Yaka (Congo), English, the Congo Language and Swahili.

“[The church] has been good since I grew up here,” Denise Lusakweno said. “They just show support and love. I’m used to everyone here. I considered them my family. It’s like a second family.”

“But, we didn’t stay with their father,” Mutongo said. “We finally got a divorce because when we got the green card, we needed work. We needed a job. I had to work always, day and night. Sometimes, I come home and go right back out. I was working 120 hours a week. He didn’t want to work. He stayed home.”

She plans to go to school to become a registered nurse and travel back to the Democratic Republic of Congo to see the family she left behind.

“Oh yeah, I want to go back one day,” Mutongo said. “I want to see my family. My kids never been nowhere. They never known my family where I came from. I really want to. If God gives me some money to take these kids, they have to go see where I come from.”

For now, Mutongo can take pride in one big goal accomplished. She’s an American citizen.

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