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Newlyweds Separated By Bureaucracy

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now we have the story of newlyweds separated by an ocean. They are among many people left in limbo as President Trump's administration slows the flow of refugees to the United States to historically low levels. Here's Matt Katz of our member station WNYC.

MATT KATZ, BYLINE: In many ways, Andre Twendele and Lisette Lukoji are typical newlyweds. They're affectionate, doting. They chat by phone every day.

ANDRE TWENDELE: Oh, my God. We talk about everything. What did you eat? What are you doing? When are you going to sleep?

KATZ: But they haven't seen each other in more than a year. Andre and Lisette are refugees who fled the Democratic Republic of Congo. Andre landed in the United States just days before the election of President Trump. Lisette remains stuck in a refugee camp in Malawi. Their story begins 12 years ago in Central Africa. Back then, Andre was a law student.

TEWNDELE: I like to defend people, to stand for people.

KATZ: He and his friends were arrested for leading a protest in opposition to the authoritarian rule of Congolese President Joseph Kabila. One night, Andre says the jail guards marched them out of their cells and deep into the forest. Andre had become friendly with one of the guards. So when they lined the students up, this guard made sure Andre was last. The first seven were shot and killed. Then the guard pretended to shoot Andre. He dropped, played dead.

TEWNDELE: It was very, very bad. People died in my presence. My friends, they died in my presence.

KATZ: Andre waited until the guards were gone and walked for hours, eventually hitching a ride to the Dzaleka Refugee Camp in Malawi.

TEWNDELE: So I start a new life, and it was not easy.

KATZ: He fought hunger and illness and loneliness. Then, eight years into his life there, a woman named Lisette Lukoji walked into the camp, barefoot. Lisette says she also suffered under President Kabila. She says the regime jailed her after a dispute with her uncle, forcing her to leave her 2-year-old daughter, Lorette, behind. And she says three prison guards raped her. She escaped and made her way to the refugee camp. The transition was hard on Lisette. Yet, amid the misery, she fell in love.

LISETTE LUKOJI: (Speaking French).

KATZ: "Love just happens," she says, "I love him."

TEWNDELE: I love her because she can complete something that miss in me.

KATZ: They got married right there in the camp. They moved in together in the home he had made of mud and sticks. They had no electricity, no running water, no work. Still, they had hope.

Andre had earned a college equivalency degree at an American college program set up at the camp. Then, after extensive screening, he was approved to be resettled in the U.S. But he had started the application process before he met Lisette. Lisette would have to stay behind.

TEWNDELE: I was crying like a baby. So it was not easy.

KATZ: He had been a refugee for 11 years, 11 years of being stuck. So it was decided - Andre would take this opportunity and go. Lisette would stay and then follow him to America.

TEWNDELE: She told me that, no, just go. I know that you are my husband. You love me. And you will do your best to help me so I can join you there in USA.

KATZ: According to the U.N., every minute, 20 people are displaced from their homes somewhere around the world due to persecution or conflict. The U.S. has resettled 3 million refugees since 1980. And over the last three years, more refugees came to the U.S. from Congo than anywhere else. But now...

TEWNDELE: With our new president, everything is tough.

KATZ: As a candidate and president, Trump has questioned the mix of immigrants coming to the U.S. His administration has slashed the number of refugees allowed into the country to the lowest level in nearly 40 years, citing lax security screening. Two weeks ago, he allegedly used vulgar language to refer to African countries.

LUKOJI: (Speaking French).

KATZ: Lisette has applied for a visa, but she has no idea if and when she'll be able to rejoin her husband. Nonetheless, Andre is building a life in America for her but without her.

On a break, in the middle of his overnight shift at a seafood packaging plant in Elizabeth, N.J., Andre made sure to call Lisette before heading back to work. The crew processes fish flown in from across the world. All but two of the dozen or so workers I meet are immigrants.

CHARLES: I'm from Nigeria. My name is Charles.

ANI: My name is Ani. I'm from the Philippines.

AMOS: I'm Amos from Liberia, West Africa.

KATZ: Many in this new generation of refugees are worried that they won't be able to bring their families here. For now, Andre sends money he makes at the plant to Lisette. She uses it to buy food and to charge her cellphone. For NPR News, I'm Matt Katz.

(SOUNDBITE OF RICHARD HOUGHTEN'S "MOVEMENTS AND MELODIES")

INSKEEP: This story is part of a WNYC series called Unsettled. It's a look at the global refugee crisis.

(SOUNDBITE OF RICHARD HOUGHTEN'S "MOVEMENTS AND MELODIES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.