On a July morning in 2018, three young girls — 9-year-old Eunice Neema, 7-year-old Bless Riziki and 4-year-old Plenty Buya — sit calmly with their caretakers on a couch at the office of IOM, the UN Migration Agency, in Kampala, Uganda. Dressed to the nines with newly-braided hair, they are waiting to meet the director of IOM. At least, that’s what they think…
While waiting, they receive a video call from their father Stéphane Kalala, who lives in Belgium. Stéphane is originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and has been recognized as a refugee in Belgium.
“How are you?” he asks Neema in French.
“It has been a long time.”
When Bless’ turn comes, a few teardrops appear; she hasn’t seen her father in three years. Stéphane starts singing over the phone and soon tears start rolling down the cheeks of all three sisters.
But the voice starts growing closer, and while the two younger girls concentrate on the image of their father on the phone screen, Neema suddenly understands. Upon realizing that it’s not a dream and that her dad is calling from much closer than Belgium, Neema can’t hide her excitement anymore. She sprints from the waiting chair, jumps high into the arms of her father who is now in the room; he embraces tightly. As if to dispel his own doubts, Stéphane lowers Neemad to stare into her pearly eyes, before lifting her one more time.
For close to a minute, Stéphane embraces his firstborn child and, perhaps due to what he and his daughters have endured, he starts crying too.
“I told you, no? On the boat, I told you, no? That I will come and look for you and your sisters,” Stéphane tells Neema in French.
Holding all three, he sways between sobs and laughs and says: “I am now completely complete because I have got my daughters. My princesses are with me now.”
For three years, Stéphane has prayed and longed for the day when his daughters would be able to join him in Belgium. His daughters, who had stayed behind in the DRC, went with their mother to Uganda (their parents are separated) in order to launch the family reunification procedure. The three files were been lodged with the Belgian Consulate in September 2017.
The day after doing so, Stéphane contacted IOM Brussels for the first time to inquire about the other types of assistance that the organization provides. He already had his mind set on an idea: to welcome his daughters in person, but not in an ordinary way. He wanted to prepare the surprise of their lives.
However, the girls’ mother had to return to the DRC a few months after the papers were filed. She wanted the best for her daughters’ future; they were entrusted to an aunt and then to a host family in Uganda.
For four months, this family took care of the girls without having met their parents. Stéphane describes them as a ‘super family’. Since he had the host family’s contact number, he frequently called his daughters, telling them that he was doing all he could to bring them to Belgium. With advice from the non-profit organization Aide Aux Personnes Déplacées in Belgium, he obtained a loan to finance travel expenses and contacted IOM for the logistical help. He also obtained the agreement of the Belgian embassy to issue a laissez-passer for his daughters.
“Every time I called [my daughters], I told them to be patient because one day they would join me in Belgium. I had submitted my request to the Belgian government,” Stéphane recalls.
But not even the phone calls could fill the vacuum left by Stéphane and the girls’ mother; Neema had the hardest task of consoling Buya every time she threw tantrums asking where her parents were. Even when the younger ones fell sick, it was Neema who was always sent to the pharmacy to buy medicine.
Stéphane though out every detail of the surprise, but there were still some obstacles to overcome. He and his daughters were asked to undergo DNA tests to prove their relationship. All tests proved that the three girls were indeed Stéphane’s daughters, but when they finally received the visa approval in May 2018, one issue was still in the way: they had no legal status in Uganda. They were neither asylum seekers nor refugees, and the travel documents they had used to enter Uganda had long expired.
IOM Uganda, in coordination with IOM Brussels, guided both the father and the host family to solve this problem. Once done, IOM Uganda collected the girls travel laissez-passer documents at the Belgian embassy. Then arrangements were made for the father to collect the girls from Uganda. Indeed, no airline would accept the girls on board without a responsible adult, especially because Plenty was younger than five years old at the time.
One IOM Uganda Resettlement Operations officer recalls that the staff working on the case had to engage a number of stakeholders to intervene so that the family could be reunited. They also approached officials from Uganda’s Directorate of Citizenship and Immigration Control for guidance on how to handle the matter.
Arrangements were made for Stéphane to come and collect the girls from Uganda, paving the way for a smooth departure from the airport when they were ready to leave. On 2 July 2018 he arrived ready to surprise his daughters, who at that point had no idea when they next see their father.
When the girls arrived at the IOM Uganda offices that day, they had no idea that their father – who had arrived from Belgium in the morning – was waiting in the same building.
The surprise was complete, and the emotions were high; for the girls, the host family, and all IOM staff present.
After a health assessment at the transit centre to verify that they are fit to travel, the family is briefed on the itinerary and pre-departure formalities, including the scheduled early departure time: 3:45 am.
The next day, accompanied by the IOM airport assistant at Entebbe airport, the family goes through check-in, security and immigration formalities smoothly. After a flight to Istanbul, the four tired but happy faces are welcomed by another IOM staff member.
Stéphane’s smile hasn’t left his face since the extraordinary reunion with his daughters. Three hours and 20 minutes later, the family finally arrives at Brussels airport. IOM staff members are waiting for them at the exit of the aircraft to facilitate immigration, luggage collection and customs formalities. While passing by a poster of the Belgian Atomium, Stéphane points at it and stresses each syllable ‘A-TO-MI-UM’. The three young girls repeat one after the other: “A-TO-MI-UM”. It seems that their integration has already begun.
Two months after their blissful family reunion, Stéphane says that the family is doing well in Namur, Belgium. He is looking for a bigger place to live and everyone is getting ready for the beginning of the school year. Now that the family is back together, Stéphane is planning only the best for his girls; he wants to give them the best life so that they turn out to be law-abiding citizens.
“I want to see my daughters improve in a certain form of education,” he says. “It’s a new life and my way of living must change now because I have my daughters to take care of. It’s not easy but I will make it. I will now be safe in Belgium with them and I will see my daughters grow up.”