Today, if you visit Light House Coffee in Baton Rouge, you might just spot Lilly working in the back. She’s a dishwasher there, and comes in five days a week. She doesn’t have a car, and sometimes has to ride on the bus for hours to travel the handful of miles between her apartment and the coffee shop. But she’s there, every day, with a smile that lights up the room.
She loves her job, she tells me. And she loves this place. Because here, for the first time in perhaps her entire life, she has some control over her own life, and over her future. “I can go to work, earn money for what I need here,” she says. “I want this.”
Lilly is originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country deemed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as “one of the most complex and challenging humanitarian situations worldwide.” Following a violent civil war that lasted from 1998 to 2003, ongoing violence by armed groups against civilians has remained pervasive due, in part, to the country’s deeply unstable government.
“It’s God who chooses for me. I didn’t know what His plan was for me there, but I had to go with Him.”
“The country is very rich,” says Lilly, referring to the handful of politicians in power. “The population is very poor. There is no clean water, no electricity, no food.” She says that the soil in Congo is fertile and perfect for agriculture, but that citizens won’t leave their villages to develop it, for fear of being attacked in the bush.
For years, Lilly found herself moving from one village to the next, fleeing devastating bouts of violence. “People were being killed, women were being raped,” she says. In 2003, she decided to escape to Zimbabwe, where there was a camp for refugees.
She lived there for thirteen years.
“Life in the camp was very hard,” she says. “You can’t work there. They would give you some food once a month that was supposed to last you. Then they started just giving us money to buy food, but they’d only give us $13 a month. The conditions were bad, and then you never knew when you would leave. It was just a lot of waiting.”
“Everything was very different. Just communicating was very difficult.”
Thirteen years of waiting to be resettled. It wasn’t until 2015 that she heard of any developments, that she had been selected to move to America. From there, she embarked on a process of interviews, medical check ups, and seminars on American rights and American law. When she finally learned that she would be relocating to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, she thought, “Where?”
“I had never heard of it before, but what could I do?” She says, “It’s God who chooses for me. I didn’t know what His plan was for me there, but I had to go with Him.”
But God had given her something else during her time in Zimbabwe. She had fallen in love with another refugee, and she had married him. For now, she would have to leave him behind.
Arriving in Baton Rouge alone in 2016, Lilly says she was terrified. “Everything was very different,” she said. “Just communicating was very difficult.” The adjustment wasn’t an easy one, but Lilly approached it with a willing heart, getting a job as a housekeeper at a local hotel, taking notes on how to understand the bus system, drawing from her childhood English classes to read street signs, and becoming an avid student in her ESL classes. Which is where she met Amber Elworth, who is now the owner of Light House Coffee, and Lilly’s employer. And it was Amber who introduced Lilly to Hands Producing Hope Founder, Rebecca Gardner, as one of the first candidates for the organization’s new refugee artisan program (You can read more about it, here!) .
For the past two and a half years, Lilly has trained and worked as an artisan for Hands Producing Hope’s Baton Rouge refugee program, creating products like our one-of-a-kind wall hangings and participating in life skills workshops.
“This is home.”
Lilly says that working with HPH has not only provided her a deeply helpful source of extra income to help pay bills, but it has also brought her to meet other people in the community, particularly other refugees who are going through experiences like her own. “I feel at home here now, because I have friends here,” she says. “I am comfortable.”
Last year, with the opening of Light House, Lilly was able to switch from her job at the hotel, which didn’t always have consistent hours or enough work for her, to the coffee shop. “I love it at Light House,” she says. “These are good people here.”
Last year, shortly after Light House opened, Amber and other employees learned about Lilly’s long bus commute and asked her if they could help her raise money to buy a car. She told them that she did not need a car, that what she really wanted was to get her husband to America.
This past April, with the money raised from an online GoFundMe campaign, Lilly was able to make the trip to Zimbabwe and reunite with her husband for the first time in three long years. There, with money she had earned in America, she was able to afford an official marriage license, which will allow for her to petition for him to join her in Baton Rouge.
There is still a long way to go before they can be permanently reunited in America, due to an arduous legal process. In the meantime though, they talk every single day through Whatsapp, and Lilly says she will continue to work hard and to learn new things.
“This is the place God has given me,” she says. “This is home.”
You can support refugees like Lilly in Baton Rouge, as they adjust to their new lives in America, by purchasing any of our one-of-a-kind, hand-made wall hangings, by donating, volunteering, or becoming a business partner with Hands Producing Hope. Purchasing specialty coffee products at Light House Coffee also supports our local refugees by supporting a business that provides them dignified, reliable, livable work and training opportunities.
To learn about other ways to get involved with the refugee community in Baton Rouge, visit https://www.ccdiobr.org/ .
June 20, 2019