Finding Hope—A lifetime testimony of God’s deliverance

Jianhua Yang   -  

Jacques Bugumba was born in the African country of Congo.  He has survived wars, lived in refugee camps, crossed multiple African countries without a passport.  He says he’s come a long way to get to his current home in the United States.  During those difficult and tiring years there were many times he thought he wasn’t going to make it.  He lost hope, but God did not forsake him.  At times people refused to help but God was always faithful.  Miraculously, he is here in Ames, Iowa working as a medical engineer at Mary Greeley Medical Center and continues to pursue the future God has in store for him.  This is Jacques’ survival story.  This is God’s story of deliverance.

A Christian family

Jacques was born to a middle-class Christian family in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). They lived in Kalemie, a town in the province of Katanga.  At that time the country was ruled by the dictator, Mobutu, who became the president in 1971 and renamed the country Zaire.  There are missionaries from all over the world in Congo, such as Europe, United States, China and other Aftrican countries.  Jacques’ father was the principal of a deaf-mute school founded by a church in Texas.  He knew many missionaries and was well known in the community.  Jacques was one of five children in the family, which would grow to seven.  He was smart.  At the age of four he passed the test enabling him to attend first grade in a private school sponsored by an American missionary.  It was there that he learned French as well as his native Swahili language.  By the age of seven, he had moved to the fifth grade level.  Jacques’ mother was a homemaker who took care of the family.  She and his father built a strong Christian faith in their children.  Every night after dinner, the entire family gathered around the dining table to worship God, sharing His word and praying together.

Surviving the 1st Congo War

Spared under the dining table

Jacques’ peaceful childhood ended when he was seven.  The 1st Congo War broke out in 1996 when a rebel group led by Kabila attempted to take over the Mobuto government.  The conflict soon became a full-scale civil war and the Kabila rebels ruthlessly eradicated government officials and government sponsored agencies.  The rebels believed the deaf-mute school where Jacques’ father taught was a government agency and planned to kill everyone working at the school.  Jacques has memories of the night rebels surrounded their house and began shooting into it.  He recalls the panic they had because there was no way out.  So they hid under the dining table, the same table they worship at.  The shots were loud, glass was shattering and household items fell everywhere. Every shot made Jacques’ heart pound harder and he trembled.  Holding tightly to each other, the family prayed and prayed that God would rescue them.  Praying was the only thing they could do.  It was the only thing they did.  The shooting continued endlessly as they were stuck in that moment.  And then suddenly, as soon as it started, the shooting stopped and everything was quiet.  The whole family frantically held their breaths.  They thought, “What are the executioners going to do next?  Are they going to come in?”  Everything remained quiet for a long, long time. Eventually, who knows how long, the family snuck out from the table and quietly peeked outside.  Unbelievable.  The rebels were gone.  To this day Jacques doesn’t know exactly what stopped the rebels from shooting or breaking into their house.  “Perhaps God heard the family’s cries and came to their rescue.  Miraculously, their lives were spared that night under the dining table.

Family on the run

Afraid that the rebels would come back the next day, the family decided to run away that night.  They could run into danger at night also so their escape had to be “deep into the night.”  So, at three o’clock in the morning, the family fled with only the clothes on their backs, leaving everything else behind.  The Railway is the main mode of transportation, so they left to find the tracks and followed them by foot South, with hopes of making it to a village where the train stopped.  There they hoped to catch a train to the capital city of Lubumbashi.  There were about two hundred kilometers between villages and the train did not stop at all villages.  Some villages they came to were abandoned but they still could find food to survive like Cassava, a starchy tuberous tropical tree root.  Some villages they came to were surrounded by rebels so they had to keep on walking.  They met many other civilians who were also running south searching for a train stop.  Jacques ran into his uncle who was fleeing also.  He escaped on his bicycle, but the tire went flat so he filled it with rice to keep him going.  On the way Jacques’ family saw dead bodies covered with blood and smelling awful.  They witness despaired soldiers dying from their war wounds.  Then the rain season came, where it rains for days on end.  Jacques remembers getting sick, vomiting and losing strength, but he kept going.  At the age of seven, Jacques was deeply traumatized with the scenes he encountered and the experiences he suffered.  “At some point you lose hope, there is no way,” he recalls.

Hiding in the mountain

After almost two weeks they reached Nyunzu, a village with a train stop.  But there was no train coming for a week.  The town was controlled by the government. Every time rebels (Kabila’s militia aid from Rwanda) advanced, the government army fought back, and finally the rebels seized the village.  Jacques’ family fled again along with other villagers, this time to the mountains.  Hiding from the gorilla warriors was hectic and terrifying. It was difficult to find food. Fortunately, the villagers found mountain farms where they found food to survive on.  Jacques’ parents kept their children as safe and fed as they could. They kept traveling on foot with constant fear and physical exhaustion.  Time didn’t exist anymore.  The chaotic life in the mountain went on and on, day and night for how long?  Looking back, perhaps a few weeks? Who knows.  How could you keep track of time in those conditions? 


In 1997 the rebels finally defeated the Mobutu government and Kabila became the new president. Things became calmer.  Exhausted from their running and needing the security of their home, Jacuqes’ family headed back to Kalemie thinking that things would be calmer.  They boarded a train from Nyunzu heading towards Kalemie.  The trip was not easy as they were required to hop on and off along the way, but they finally made it back six months from when they first fled.

Enduring the 2nd Congo War

Family apart

The calm life did not last long.  The 2nd Congo War erupted in August, 1998 just 14 months after the family returned home.  Kabila, the new president, ordered Rwandan mercenaries, who came to Congo to help him win his civil war, back to Rwanda.  The mercenaries wanted to stay.  Allies became enemies and a new civil war began.  This time, it was the Rwandan militia that savaged the towns and villages, killing all.  The scenes in the movie “Hotel Rwanda” accurately depict what truly happened then.  Babies were shot in front of mothers, deceased bodies were floating in the rivers with deceased bodies and children were kidnapped taken to be trained as Rwandan soldiers. On the night the new rebels invaded Jacques’ hometown of Kalemie, his family again fled their home, first to another family  member’s home in the same town. After finding out their own house home had been demolished that night, the three older men of them, Jacques, his father and older brother escaped further.  His mother and younger three siblings stayed behind.  This would be another traumatic event for the eight year old Jacques.

Mercy from the rebels

The three male Bugumba family members fled on foot for a week using railway train tracks to reach a safer village three hundred kilometers away.  They remained within a group of twenty others, who hid in the forest surrounded by militia, for six months.  They hid in the bushes in a valley across from a stream.  Their clothes were torn and worn so they could see each other’s backside. Food became scarce.  Sometimes they could find food in the villages but cooking was dangerous as fire and smoke would draw attention to their whereabouts. Unfortunately, they were spotted in the valley one day by their smoke.  Militia started shooting and throwing grenades toward them. But they suddenly stopped the attack.  It sounded like one militia wanted to shoot a rocket, but another stopped him saying, “Let’s find out who they are before killing them.”  That was an unusual military tactic. The troops stayed on top of the valley looking for movement below for hours.  The refugees remained still, hiding under the trees.  Eventually the attackers came down into the valley. Shockingly, they said, “Do not run.  We will not kill you.”  After talking to the refugees, they wished them luck, said goodbye and left peacefully.  What a miracle!

An angel to cross the river

Living in the forest was very very hard.  Jacques and his father and brother had no idea where they were or where they were heading to.  Finally, some in the group decide to leave and Jacques’ father decided they would go with them.  There were two choices: follow the railway or cross the river and onto the mountain on the other side.  The river was just across the tracks, but neither were close to where the refugees were. When the breakaway group approached the tracks they saw the train was used to transport soldiers, which made it a battleground. Walking on the railway was too dangerous.  They decided to cross the railway and get to the river.  When they arrived at the river they discovered it was too wide and too deep to swim across.  The only way to cross was by boat and there were no boats as they were on the other side having transported wounded soldiers.  They returned to the train tracks but the trains were approaching closer and closer and they could hear gun fire.  They frantically returned to the river bank again.  This time, a villager and his boat had returned from delivering wounded soldiers and decided to come back for them.  Just as the boat, filled with refugees left the shore the train passed.  “I believe the boat owner was an angel,” Jacques says as he retells this story.

Lost hope is found again

The Bugumba men kept fleeing from village to village, following other refugees.  They often traveled in the deep of the night, three o’clock in the morning, to avoid being detected.  After running from place to place for months, they decided to stay in place for quite some time.  Without any means of communication, Jacques’ mother and three younger siblings assumed they were dead.  After two or more years away from home, Jacques’ father decided they should go back to where his mother and siblings were as things were calming down a little.  When they finally arrived back home his mom and siblings were shocked to see them.  They had lost all hope.  But then there they were, reunited again, miraculously.  God had not forsaken them.

From Congo to Tanzania (2000)

Another miraculous boat ride

Even though things were more calm back home there was no peace.  The war continued, people hated each other and their situation worsened.  The Bugumbas wanted to leave their home of Congo.  One way to do so was to apply for refugee status through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Agency. (UNHCR). The Agency worked hand in hand with embassies of wester countries like Germany, Finland, Norway, United States, Canada, Australia, etc..  People would be able to settle in these countries.  But there were many in Congo who were applying for refugee status.  The process took forever with one interview after another and delay after delay.  Jacques had no idea if it would ever be possible to go to school again, a deep yearning of his.  He could not see a future for him.  Finally, the family decided to leave everything behind and move to Tanzania, the country east of Congo.  They fled at night, like they had so many times before, empty handed with only the money in their pocket.  However, the border between them and Tanzania was in the middle of the world’s second-largest and deepest freshwater lake, Tanganyika.  Usually people cross on a large ship, or use a more risky fishing boat.  There were no large ships available. It took two days for fishing boats to cross.  Many people died on such a trip.  The boat ahead of them was seized and capsized, killing all on board.  The Bugumbas took the fishing boat.  Miraculously and by God’s grace, their boat successfully crossed and they survived.

God will see you through

When they arrived in Kigoma, the port of entry in west Tanzania, they declared themselves as refugees as they had no passports.  They were sent to the refugee camp Nyarugusu.  Life for the family was safe but still very hard.  They remained there for six months. In the camp, the family worshiped and served God. Jacques’ father’s reputation again became well-known and missionaries and even the town priest knew him.  The rebels back home started looking for him and targeting the whole family.  By then the family wanted to go as far away as they could from the threat in Congo.  His father wanted to take them through central Africa and then to South Africa.  But they had no money and no help.  His father knew  Pastor Samson, a missionary from Illinois who then was living in a town within a long day’s drive from their camp.  The father made the trip and Pastor Samson was excited to see him, but had no means to help except offering him one-hundred dollars.  The pastor sent Jacques’ father off with the money and said, “God will see you through.”  Today, Jacques’ parents are living in Illinois, USA.

From Tanzania to Malawi (2000-2003)

A train ride from west to east Tanzania

One-hundred dollars was a fortune in Tanzania at the time, but still not enough to transport all Bugumba children to South Africa.  With the money, they took a train from the western port city of Kigoma to Tanzania’s largest city of Dar es Salaam, which is on the eastern border. (Dar es Salaam is Arabic, meaning ‘Place of Peace’). The family couldn’t talk on the train because their accents would draw attention to the police.  Refugees were required to stay in their camp and not travel.  If they were found traveling without documentation they would be arrested.  Luckily, they were not detained by police on the two-day train ride and made it to their destination safely.  A friend of Jacques’ father welcomed them in Dar es Salaam and helped get them on a train to Malawi, a country south of Tanzania.

Crossing the border as Msowoya’s family

At the Malawi border they met a missionary family whom Jacque’s father knew back in Congo. Msowoya and his wife came to Congo early in their life as Protestant missionaries.  They were returning to Malawi with their large family, which included twenty grandchildren.  Msowoya told the Bugumbas to say they were from the Msowoya family so that the border control would let them in.  There were so many Msowoya family members the border police could not tell and the Bugumbas were able to take advantage and crossed into Malawi without further trouble.

Lost contact with Dad

Once in Malawi, they went straight to the Dzaleka refugee camp.  Their plans were to leave Malawi and continue to South Africa, but they couldn’t.  Jacques’ father decided to go on to South Africa by himself first and send money back for the family to join him.  After his father left, the family lost contact with him for a year.  The family remained in the camp for three more years with much suffering.  They were far away from any family members who could help.  His mother had to sell items on the street to make ends meet.  Jacques was able to attend school in Malawi for three years and learn English as it is native language of Malawi.

Baptized in Dzaleka refugee camp (Malawi)

Even with all the difficulties, Jacques’ family served in every refugee camp they were in and they left their mark everywhere.  They worshiped, sang and played instruments.  Hardships did not stop them from praying. They lived through prayers.  Jacques taught Sunday school in the camp.  Though life was hard and unstable, somewhere around twelve years old, Jacques decided to be baptized in a Pentecostal church where he was immersed in deep water, compared to the Catholic church where they pour water on your head.

From Malawi to Mozambique (2003)

Missed Dad again

After three years, the family decided to go to South Africa to be with Jacques’ father’s cousin. He was a pastor in Durban, a coastal city on the eastern side of South Africa.  Just when they decided to leave, they received a letter from their father.  He never made it to South Africa because he was arrested on his way in Mozambique and held prisoner for a year.  He had just been released and taken to Bobole refugee camp in Mozambique. They were excited to hear from their dad and decided to join him in Mozambique instead of heading to Durban.  They traveled again with no visa or passport and depended only on their faith that God would see them through.  They received a tent to live in when they reached Bobole refugee camp but by then their father had already found a way to South Africa.  They just missed each other.

Nine years in South Africa (2003-2012)

Family united but no school

After staying a few months in Bobole camp the family moved to Johannesburg, a larger city in South Africa. His father joined them soon after and the family was finally united again.  But things remained difficult because it was hard to get a proper job without proper documentation.  Jacques’ father managed to get a job guarding cars at the shopping mall.  He would guard shoppers’ cars so that they were not stolen. There was no salary, only tips, which were always small coins.  The money was used to buy food but never enough to pay rent.  The parents and all of their seven children lived in a one room apartment.  Jacques was thirteen or fourteen at the time, but unable to go to school.  He had to work selling clothes in a clothing shop to help support the family.  His brothers worked also and his sister sold puff-puff cakes (AKA fat cakes).  Their mom again sold stuff on the side of the street.  One day, a woman working in the clothing shop with Jacques said,”You are too young to work here. You should be in school.”  “I cried,” Jacques recalled, “she touched my heart and I couldn’t stop crying.  I never said anything to her.  She didn’t understand my situation.”  They had extended family members in South Africa, one even had a big house.  But none wanted to help them.  They couldn’t understand why Jacques’ father brought seven children to South Africa.  It was at this point the Bugumba family began pursuing to resettle again via UNHRC and move out of South Africa to a western country.

The fire- a deliverance or another trial?

One day Jacques was working in the clothing shop and his brother came running to him yelling, “Let’s go home, Let’s go home.”  The seven-story building where they lived was on fire and their apartment was on the fifth floor.  Their mom fainted and was taken to the hospital.  Jacques cried and thought, ‘Why do we keep suffering?  I have no hope.”  Miraculously, all rooms in the building caught fire except theirs.  A bottle of paraffin oil was in the room but did not catch fire.  A neighbor later said to them, “Now I believe the God you pray to every night is a true living God.”  But at the time Jacques’ could not comprehend that God had once again saved them.  He lost his thinking and his hope.  He was crying and upset that they would have to move again. But, they had nowhere to go so they moved into a rundown, filthy, stinky, unfinished building.  Their Aunt, Uncle or cousins did not want to come see what had happened to them.  Eventually, they came later to visit and remained outside and would not go into the building because of the stench.  They came and went, not wanting to help.  It was then that Jacques came to realize that even family can disappoint you, our only hope is in the Lord.

School once again

At this same time, there was a elderly white Dutch woman who was the principal of an elementary school.  She had contacts with sponsors from western countries like Italy, Netherlands and Germany who were helping refugee children get an education.  As soon as Jacques’ mom heard of her, she approached her about his education.  The principle was able to help Jacques enroll into school.  He tested for placement into the eighth grade of High School.  All his siblings were sponsored too and happily able to complete their education.  The principal took a liking to Jacques.  She thought he was smart and continued to find sponsors for him all the way through college.  Jacques was able to complete the University of Johannesburg (UJ) and received his bachelor’s degree in Medical Science.

To the United States

From Alabama to Illinois

After nine years in South Africa, in April of 2012 they left through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Agency (UNHRC). (This is the same agency they unsuccessfully applied to when they first left their war torn home in Congo.)  They applied to many different countries and the United States opened their doors and accepted them. The whole family was placed in Mobile, Alabama where a Catholic church provided help for refugees to integrate into American society.  After some time, Jacques’ family moved from a very rural Alabama to  Atlanta, Georgia and then to Chicago, Illinois.  The family found Chicago to be the place for their new home. His parents are still living there today.  Jacques’ interest in Medical Science led him to focus on getting his second bachelor’s degree in Biomedical Engineering at Northern Illinois University. (NIU) 

Life in Iowa

Soon after graduating from NIU, Jacques was offered a job at Mary Greeley Medical Center in Ames, Iowa.  In the spring of 2019, he moved to Ames for his first professional job.  As a medical engineer, he manages medical equipment purchases, preventive maintenance, equipment repair, etc.  But he became lonely because he had no friends here.  He missed his family and friends badly and he wanted to quit within a week.  He tried several churches in the community but didn’t feel connected.  He wanted a church where he could be spiritually fed and a place to serve.  One evening as he was going home from work he drove by River Valley Park and spotted people playing soccer.  He had his soccer cleats with him so he asked if he could join.  That soccer game was where he met Ayodeji.  Jacques heard Ayo’s African accent and became very excited.  They instantly became friends and exchanged phone numbers.  He asked Ayo where he worshiped so Ayo brought him to Christ Community Church.  Jacques immediately connected with Pastor David’s preaching series of “The Cord of Three Strands: unbroken in the tough stuff.”  “This is it”, Jacques said.  He loved the illustrations, examples and how Pastor David put everything together.  The sermons deeply touch his heart.  Christ Community Church has become Jacques’ home church. His desire to serve has been filled by serving on the tech and worship teams.  On September 28th he played keyboard at the Catalyst worship service.

What’s next?

When asked about his future, Jacques says “Wherever God leads me.”  He is thinking about getting a master’s degree to become a perfusionist.  A perfusionist operates the heart-lung machine during open heart surgeries to maintain blood and oxygen circulation.  Iowa State does not offer this degree so he is working on his application to the University of Iowa next year.  In the meantime, he is also working on a plan to find a part time job to support himself. 

Come and see for yourself

“God has been a blessing to my family”, Jacques declares.  “It was a privilege to grow up in a Christian family with a mom and dad who loves God.  Our tradition of family worship, sharing the word of God and praying together remains with us to this day.  Every Sunday night I, and each of my siblings call into my parents phone and we worship and pray together.  I feel so privileged to have grown up in a family like this.  Even though I went to school as a Christian and people looked at me weird, it has been worth everything.” 

There have been many rescues from danger, so many ‘Lucky instances and much help from Christian missionaries…  God has been faithful to Jacques and his family.

When asked for his favorite Bible verse, Jacques cites John 1:46.  Nazareth? Can anything good come from There?” Nathanael asked.  “Come and see,” said Philip.