Brookline is home to many immigrant families, and the Mandes is one of them. The family includes mother, Elizabeth, and father, Boniface and their ten children: Madeleine, Achilene, Yannick, Nancy, Jeansmine, Geraldine, Cathy, Jonathan, Merveille and Michee (oldest to youngest.) They emigrated to the United States from the Democratic Republic of Congo in waves, beginning in the late 1990s. Today, much of the family lives on a quiet, leafy street in Brookline Village, far from the war-torn central African country where they fled.
It was Elizabeth who was the first family member to arrive in the United States and in greeting Elizabeth, it’s apparent that she is the family matriarch. Elizabeth possesses an almost regal air as she calmly and graciously welcomes visitors, giving no hint of the hardship she endured to get where she and her family is today.
The family’s migration experience to America began in 1994 when the Rwandan genocide began to spill into the Democratic Republic of Congo. The military overthrew the government, disrupting daily life for the Mande siblings. With no school or any type of structure, the siblings reverted to what Jonathan, the second youngest of the siblings, described as “survival mode.” “It’s a completely different type of existence. Schools were out of session.” Elizabeth was the first member of the family to arrive in the United States in 1998 as a refugee. The early years were a struggle as she spent the first portion of her time in this country homeless. She survived by frequenting different shelters for food and housing. Elizabeth relied on her Christian faith to help her endure those difficult early years. She recalls how she frequently ducked into McDonald’s, Dunkin Donuts and other fast-food establishments to pray and meditate while living out on the streets.
The children came to the United States in waves to join their mother. For Jonathan and Achilene, social worker Paul Epstein was their first introduction to the United States. It was Epstein who greeted the children at Terminal E at Logan Airport when they arrived in Boston.
“Paul Epstein was the very first white person I knew by name,” says Michee. “He was there at the airport in February 2004, right when we stepped out of Gate E. He had a smile ready to greet us and has been a part of my life since, one way or the other. If it were not for Paul, the incredible opportunity of living in Brookline, and attending Brookline schools wouldn’t have been possible.”
The Mandes constantly express their gratitude to Epstein; a conversation with the Mandes does not go on for long without his name popping up. He helped Elizabeth find an apartment for the children, introduced them to Thanksgiving, and he even helped Jonathan learned to drive. What he has done for the Mande family goes above and beyond his day job as a social worker. “I owe everything to Paul Epstein,” said Elizabeth.
Elizabeth drew support from many others too, including a landlady who was willing to lease her an apartment even though she didn’t have enough money to secure a deposit. In speaking with Elizabeth, the story of the Mandes becomes not just a story of a family working to survive in a foreign land but also of the network of people here who took the chance to help them. Sitting with Jonathan Mande and Paul Epstein in a cafe is even like sitting with two old friends who go way back as they quip back and forth with one another recalling old memories and filling gaps in one another’s stories.
“When I first met the family, I felt a very strong connection with them,” said Epstein. “Elizabeth is a rock. There is nothing she wouldn’t do to ensure that her children become successful and decent adults.”
Even with the guidance of a devoted social worker, familiarizing themselves with modern American life was daunting at times. The Mande children only knew about America what they had seen from movies, and while their new country was safe and comfortable in a way their native land was not, they found American life came with its own unique set of challenges.
“I thought everyone in America was happy at all times, but I came to realize that the stress in America causes a lot of people to become angry and depressed,” says Merveille.
“All the buildings were huge, and I was in simple awe of the industrialism I had not been exposed to before,” Michee added. “I knew why we were leaving our home country and that the idea was, that America would be different. It was nearly a utopia in my mind when I first arrived, it was like nothing I had ever seen before.”
While Elizabeth loves this town, she has a message for Brookline.
“Make space for immigrants,” she said. “It’s a wonderful, welcoming town but there needs to be more action, not just talk.” While members of the family sometimes deeply feel their status as outsiders, they are as deeply grateful to be here. They recognize that it was living in Brookline that opened the door for a good education and other opportunities they may not have had otherwise living in another city.
“Being in Brookline’s bubble and benefiting from my zip code was great, but witnessing all that I didn’t have, whether it was through friends or simple observation was arguably the most beneficial,” said Michee. “It helped put an idea in my mind that I would not be low-income for the rest of my life. I made it my mission to soak up every single opportunity that came my way, anything that would put me on the same playing field as my white counterparts, some of who were born with these opportunities. “
Despite touting itself as a progressive, inclusive town, Brookline is not immune to racism. Jonathan bitterly recalled his first experience being pulled over by the police in the seventh grade. “I was so scared and had no idea why I was being pulled over,” he said. “It was my first time being profiled as a black person in Brookline.”
The current political climate in the country is, understandably, disconcerting for them. “It’s heartbreaking what’s happening now, it doesn’t feel like home, I don’t feel welcome here,” Jonathan added.
The family has a lot to say about the immigration issues of today, particularly the idea of merit-based immigration. “Merit-based immigration is selfish,” said Elizabeth. “You don’t know what people are going through. People who come here are applying for jobs like anyone else. As a Christian I believe in giving; giving is better than getting. I came here with nothing. My children went to college. They listened, they helped people and they will become accomplished people. If we only bring in accomplished people, we are only bringing in more privilege.”
Elizabeth made sure that her children understood just how high the stakes were for them. America is not their native home. Deportations would be on the table if they got into trouble. Jonathan recalls how his mother warned him trouble could result in a return to the Congo; the stakes for them were much higher than for their American peers. “You are in this country as a guest,” Elizabeth said. You cannot take it for granted. Getting into trouble may mean jail for your friends but it could me deportation for you.”
The Mande children seem to have taken the mother’s words to heart. All children are pursuing their own careers on their own merit. “Immigrants cannot only rely on social services,” Achilene added. “Our mom was constantly asking us what we wanted to do in five years.” She loves working with children and hopes to have a career doing so. Merveille is currently pursuing a pediatric nursing degree. Jonathan recently graduated from Lesley and currently operates his own non-profit. Michee works at WCVB News Center 5. Yannick works at VPNE.
When speaking on the success of the Mande children, Epstein points to something much greater than what they do on their day jobs. “The Mande children all possess a gift,” he said. “It is the gift of humanity. That is not to say that they are perfect beings, but only that they connect with other people in a genuine and meaningful way. They overcame tremendous hardship. But perhaps their greatest achievement is not the overcoming of the obstacle itself, but the manner in which they did not let their struggles dim their ambition or fundamental belief in their own self-worth or the goodness inherent in others.”
The Mandes have even higher hopes for the next generation of their family (there are currently nine grandchildren in the Mande family). All the children echo the same sentiment — they wish future generations went even further than they did but never forget where they came from or the sacrifices that their parents made.
“I want my children to do better than I did and go further, and also know the value of having others,” said Achilene.