Vasita Hakizimana flips through a stack of photos of her children who are still back in Africa.
She stops at one of her son James Niyonzigiye, called Mandela by the family, standing next to his wife as they pose for a picture outside their mud-brick home in Burundi.
Vasita brings the picture close to her face and blows a kiss, then another and another.
She goes through the photos over and over again inside her one-bedroom apartment at Dogwood Manor, a high-rise building in downtown Chattanooga with a view of the Tennessee River and Lookout Mountain.
Vasita and her husband, James Girukwayo, last saw their sons and daughters in 2007, when the couple boarded a white bus inside a refugee camp in northwestern Tanzania. The adults waved, the grandchildren cried.
They all thought they soon would rebuild their lives together in America.
They still are waiting.
In the town of Rumonge, Burundi, along the side of a lake, Mandela looks at a picture of his parents, the first he has seen in five years. His father stands proudly next to Vasita, who sits in a kitchen chair. They are both cracking a smile.
Mandela wistfully glances at the photograph and shakes his head from side to side.
His eyes begin to water, and he takes out a worn blue-and-white rag from his jeans.
"I'm sorry," he says in his native Kirundi, as he wipes his eyes.
• • •
Wars and conflicts erupt across the world every year, displacing millions of people from their homes, separating them from their families.
Forty years since James and Vasita were forced to flee their home country in 1972 as a young couple, they still are struggling to return to a normal life.
First, they spent decades raising their children inside poverty-stricken refugee camps. Then they traveled alone more than halfway across the world thinking their family was coming, too. Only later did they realize they would face this new challenge alone.
The Western idea of children growing up and moving away from home is unthinkable for a rural Burundian family.
Family members take care of one another. When one has a problem, it belongs to them all. James is supposed to keep the family together in his plot of land, dividing it only among his children as they marry so they, too, can build a home and raise their own family.
Instead, they are missing their grandchildren's first steps, their first words. They have grandchildren they have yet to meet. There's one on the way, and they won't be there to welcome him or her to the world.
James and Vasita had 11 children.
Some were shot to death in the ethnic violence in Burundi. Others died in the refugee camp because of malnutrition.
Only five are left.
Their three sons and two daughters range in age from 28 to about 40.
But the family is scattered across two continents and three countries. Two siblings remain in a refugee camp in northwestern Tanzania that is scheduled to close at the end of the year. One waits with her husband in Tanzania's capital to migrate to the United States. The other two live in Burundi.
James and Vasita, now 71 and 64, are alone in the United States.
"America gave us a place to stay, and we are grateful for it," says James through an interpreter. "It's only that the separation has been very painful."
For their sons and daughters it's frustrating to know their parents are growing old and they're not here to help them.
• • •
Family unity is important for the United Nations refugee agency, but it has to prioritize and protect the most vulnerable, said Anne-Marie McGranaghan, associate resettlement officer for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees regional office in Washington, D.C.
"When we were looking at the 1972 Burundians, our priority was to resettle the people in the group and their dependent family members," she said.
In James and Vasita's case it could have been miscommunication or that the other resettlement applications were denied. Each son and daughter had to go through the process separately with their own families.
None of them seems to know for sure what went wrong.
The goal of the program was not to necessarily resettle all the extended family because there's a limited number of resettlement slots, the UN official said. Another option to bring families together is through reunification programs in the resettlement countries.
The U.S. refugee resettlement program has a process for family reunification, but it was suspended in 2008 because of fraud. It is scheduled to resume this year, but it wouldn't benefit James and Vasita because it applies only to spouses and unmarried children under 21.
If James and Vasita are to bring their children and their families to the United States one day, the couple must start by becoming U.S. citizens. In order to do that, they need to speak English.
They are learning.
They must be able to write and read a sentence in English and answer at least six questions correctly out of 10 about American government and history.
Once they pass their test, it still could be years before the families in Burundi could come.
• • •
The couple lives modestly. Neither of them works. James receives a Supplemental Security Income check every month for less than $700.
Their carpeted apartment is covered with colorful rugs. The walls are bare except for a calendar with two small U.S. flags taped to it. A black baby doll sits on top of the kitchen counter-- it reminds her of her grandchildren, Vasita says.
Even with their limited English, they have made friends in the building.
"Hello, how are you?" James says, with an emphasis in the "O's" anytime he greets a neighbor.
They started a garden near the public housing site where they grow beans and corn just like they did in Burundi before the war.
They have shelter and food. Even a flat-screen television, a refrigerator, an electric stove, a stereo -- all things they could have never dreamed of owning before.
Still, they say they wouldn't have come if they had known their children wouldn't follow soon after.
"We have food but our own children don't," says Vasita.
"We can't be happy knowing they aren't happy," adds James.
"They live in a desert," he said. "How can they be happy?"
• • •
Mandela left the refugee camp in Tanzania to go to Burundi a couple of years ago -- a two-hour drive across the border. He says he gave up hope of joining his parents.
He settled in a town called Rumonge, about an hour's drive from the capital of Bujumbura.
Some days there is nothing to eat, Mandela said. At least in the camp there were rations of oil, beans and maize-based cereal every two weeks.
With the help of a church, Mandela built a small three-bedroom home with a metal roof not far from Lake Tanganyika, where his family goes to bathe and wash clothes.
He looks for odd jobs to earn a living.
Mandela has a wife and eight children, including an orphan he took in. Sometimes he gets paid a couple of dollars to haul wet clay into wooden molds to make bricks. Other times he farms.
His 9-year-old daughter is the top student in her second-grade class. As a proud father, he is quick to show her report card and talk about his other children's achievements. But he is ashamed to admit he can't come up with the $5 needed for each to have a khaki school uniform.
Most of his children dress in clothes that have more holes than fabric. The only shoes they have are plastic sandals.
When asked if he would like for his parents to return to Burundi, the reply is clear:
"Look around me," said Mandela, pointing at the mud walls of his home. At the beds made out of tree branches with woven mats as mattresses, at the dirt floors.
He sees his parents' photograph. Their round faces, their nice clothes. The white concrete walls of their apartment in the background.
"There's the answer," he says.
Perla Trevizo joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 2007 and covers immigration/diversity issues and higher education. She holds a master’s degree in newswire journalism from Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid, Spain, and a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Texas. In 2011 she participated in the Bringing Home the World international reporting fellowship program sponsored by the International Center for Journalists, producing a series on Guatemalan immigrants for which she ...