Prosper Panumpabi on building community in Champaign-Urbana after leaving the Democratic Republic of Congo

 

Prosper Panumpabi is interviewed by Uni High student Rowan Trilling-Hansen in the WILL radio studio.

Prosper Panumpabi is an engineer who came to the United States in the early 2000s from the Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC, with his wife and six children. Since then, he has become an important member of the immigrant community.

Panumpabi traveled between the U.S. and the DRC frequently due to his job as CEO at the Congolese Office of Post and Telecommunications. Working there brought its own challenges:

Prosper Panumpabi
When I was running the National Company of Telecommunications and Postal Office, I was caring most about employees. It is not stable like in the US. People might work for 10 months, they don’t get paid. It’s one of the reasons why those people are suffering.

Annette Lee, Narrator
Panumpabi worked hard to support the employees, even buying a car for the company, but he says this behavior went against the expectations of the board committee, which chose to fire him. But the employees wouldn’t accept it.

Prosper Panumpabi
All the company strike, to say, “We need that man back, otherwise we don’t work anymore.” And then the minister did call me: “I need peace, I don’t know what kind of man you are, you should be back here.” And I went back.

Annette Lee, Narrator
Panumpabi worked there from 2002 to 2004, and it was during this time that he applied for the lottery program to immigrate to the U.S: 

Prosper Panumpabi
I did apply to give opportunity to my kids to have a strong education. There is no bus transportation. There is no library in the school. Teachers are not paid so they are not willing to give a real education. And then when you have education in English and then sometimes you speak another language—that’s a strength at a different level.

Annette Lee, Narrator
Even after winning the lottery, the path to coming to the United States was difficult for Panumpabi and his family.

Prosper Panumpabi
We did win the lottery. At the time there were trouble in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and then the US did decide to move the embassy for immigration from Kinshasa to Cameroon. So I had to travel with all my family from Kinshasa to Cameroon to do the interview. The expectation for some just after the interview, if you get a visa, you come in the US. But for me that’s not the case. I had to go back in Congo to do my job, because that time they gave you one-year window to move in the US. I went back in my country to do my job, and then after that I had to pay one more ticket for eight people to come here.

Annette Lee, Narrator
Panumpabi worked several different jobs as he began to transition into the United States. He continued working in the Congo for a little while in order to support his family now living in America. At one point he worked as a technician for the wind farm in Peoria, because it provided medical insurance. But adjusting to a new country brings many challenges. For Panumpabi, finding employment was just one obstacle:

Prosper Panumpabi
As electrical engineer in Africa, what I was doing in the job, I was really working as a technician. I was not working as an engineer. So at that time I could not understand why I was not able to get the job I want. And then this is challenge, when you come to the US through the lottery diversity, nobody gives you a break. The government care more about our kids. They will give education to the kids but for the parent, what the expectation you have to go to work. You have to go to work in order to pay your rent, to pay your electricity, to pay your water, you pay this. But sometimes you don’t even know the language.

Annette Lee, Narrator
Panumpabi found that even when working in areas he had experience in, it could be very different from what he was used to doing in the Congo.

Prosper Panumpabi
At interview, the manager started paying attention to me. He gave me a job, but when I stood up in front of the machine I was not able to use it. So much computer, so much stuff. In Africa we have to draw manually with a pencil, with a ruler. So you are not going to work at the same speed.

Annette Lee, Narrator
Since coming to America, Panumpabi has been on the forefront of helping other immigrants. His church, the Wedding of the Lamb Church, has been awarded a medallion from the city of Urbana for their work.
Prosper Panumpabi
I have succeeded to help now over 400 people. I’m talking about legal immigrants, I don’t have experience with non-legal. When they win the lottery, they said, “Where you gonna go in the US?” So they get in touch with me, I said, “Okay, I’m gonna help you.” Those people, they have moved from Champaign. They have gone all over America.

Annette Lee, Narrator
Immigrants and non-immigrants alike are diverse. They’re from different backgrounds and speak different languages. But Panumpabi has found that groups like churches can bring people together while still allowing people to stay true to themselves.

Prosper Panumpabi
But what did happen is we got this call from God. To serve him in the city of Champaign, and to take care of those people coming in the US, don’t know what is the language to speak. But I want to make a point. In Africa we pray God in our languages. We pray God in French, and in Lingala, Kikongo. So, bottom line, God did call us to have this bilingual service in Champaign- Urbana, which is the French language. We pray in French, in English, in Lingala, in Ciluba, Kikongo, whatever, the language is good for you, come.

Annette Lee, Narrator
However, today various communities are worried about the current state of immigration, and so is Panumpabi. Speaking in May of 2018, he explained the lottery was still going strong.

Prosper Panumpabi
That’s a government program which allow the minority, which is meaning the less represented countries in the US, to come through a drawing. Basically the US government, they give about 50,000 visas, green card, every year through that program. What is happening exactly, this is the month of May. In a few days the US government is gonna publish the winner of the 50,000 lottery from the last year. I have many connections in Africa asking me, “Is it gonna survive? We heard that they don’t like anymore immigrant, what is going to happen?” But officially the program is still up.

Annette Lee, Narrator
So far, the Diversity Visa Program has survived. The U.S. State Department opened applications to the program for the 2020 and 2021 fiscal years, despite scrutiny from lawmakers and the President. ,  Panumpabi wants people to see the visa program the way he sees it: an opportunity for good people to have a better life.

Prosper Panumpabi
I hope that there will be some lesson we’re going to learn about accepting to live with people moving in the U.S. Not only people from Africa, but people from all over the world. We have moved in the U.S., and we are good people. We are good people. We come to this country, the country which welcomes us. I’ll never be in trouble in this country. And the people getting in trouble, I go to help them.


Nathalie Stein, Narrator
If you want to listen to the full documentary, learn more about immigration in Champaign-Urbana, and see all the people who made this project possible, go to will.illinois.edu/illinoisyouthmedia.

This has been Immigration in the Spotlight. Thanks for listening.

Prosper Panumpabi has always offered help to those who need it. Since coming to the United States from the Democratic Republic of Congo with his wife and six children over 15 years ago, he has worked hard to support other immigrants in their journeys to find a new home.

This is the second segment in a four-part podcast series by students at Uni High called “Immigration in the Spotlight.” We profile residents of Champaign-Urbana originally from far away places, and the activists who support them. To listen to the full documentary, learn more about immigration in Champaign-Urbana, and see all the people who made this project possible, go here.

Tags

More on Immigrants’ Journeys: Challenges and Opportunities in Champaign-Urbana

Producers

Meet the people who produced this project

CC by NC

Content License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.