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Orphaned by war, a young refugee finds family in Tacoma

Gabriel Spitzer
Nathalie Bajinya, at her clothing store in Lakewood.


This story originally aired Jan. 12, 2019.   

Nathalie Bajinya grew up in the Democratic Republic of Congo with her twin sister, her younger sister and brother, and her parents, a teacher and a school principal. In the early 2000s, the long-raging civil war in Congo was officially winding down, but all over the country, pockets of fighting continued.

One day at school, the teachers abruptly sent everyone home. Nathalie fled to another village with her grandmother and waited to hear from her parents. There was no word from them.

“We went back home. Things were smelling so bad, because people get killed in the street ... dogs are eating the bodies, everything was really bad. Until now, sometimes when I sleep, I still see it in my dreams,” Nathalie says.

“When we get home, we waited. (I thought), my dad is gonna come, my mom is gonna come. No one ever showed up.”

Nathalie was quickly thrust into responsibilities she was way too young for. At age 10, she was caring for her younger siblings and surviving on the generosity of others. Some of those people, like the Catholic sisters, were bastions of kindness and stability. Others, even relatives, were villains who merely heaped new traumas onto Nathalie’s shoulders.

By the time she was 15 she’d been in orphanages and refugee camps for almost six years. That’s when she managed to apply for refugee status, and find a new home in Tacoma.

But instead of salvation, Nathalie says she found new struggles in the United States — particularly in the foster care system.

“A lot of kids, when they’re done with foster care, they’re being thrown like dogs. Even dogs here have more value than foster kids,” she says.

Nathalie never stopped trying to fill the spaces left empty when she lost her parents. She would eventually find family for herself and, through a combination of grit and ingenuity, rebuild her life.

She met a woman named Patricia Hemphill, who would become a mother figure to her.

“(I’m) like her child,” Nathalie says. “Sometimes I drive her crazy, and sometimes she gets mad and, in two minutes, I’m back on the phone calling her.”

Patricia opened her home to Nathalie, helped her with schoolwork, and eventually to open a business: Undeniable Bajinya, in Lakewood, sells the clothes that Nathalie designs and sews herself.

She had learned to sew in Congo, and now she creates vibrant garments of cotton and wool, dresses and jackets and handbags that combine French fashion with African colors and American styles.

She’s using the store to teach skills to other foster kids, and provide them a supportive workplace with a boss who understands what they’re going through.

Just 22 years old, Nathalie has become a mother figure herself.

“Every time when they have a problem, they call me and say, ‘Nathalie, you’re still a mother to us.’ So I feel like I helped them to be stronger.”

Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.