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Refugee family mourns loss of father

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Washikala Wabyola Abwe, 67, passed away last week after an illness. Photo courtesy of Hope Daniels Photography

Washikala Wabyola Abwe, 67, had been a tailor before he and his family arrived in the United States last fall. They fled from war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to a refugee camp in Tanzania before immigrating to the U.S. in November.

With the help of Murfreesboro Roots for Refugees, they settled here in Rutherford County to start a new life under better circumstances, without the threat of violence.

But Abwe passed away suddenly last week after an illness, leaving behind his pregnant wife, Tobongye, and their six, soon to be seven, young children.

"Just a few days ago he was sitting outside, watching the kids play and smiling," said Abdou Kattih of Murfreesboro Roots for Refugees, a group that helps families make a home here.

"They're not established at all. It's going to be really, really hard," said Kattih. "This family, the way we see it right now, has no support. The dad had a disability check that will stop, too. So it's not just that he's lost from the family, his income is going to be lost as well."

This is where the community is stepping in.

Within 48 hours of Abwe's death a GoFundMe account, established by Murfreesboro Roots for Refugees, raised more than $3,500 towards funeral expenses. A casket and plot were both donated. But the family will have other bills in the coming months -- rent, utilities, medical expenses, child care and more.

"She's currently working full-time," said Kattih. "Can she work for nine months? I have no idea. She may physically or emotionally not be able to handle it."

Since Abwe's death, other Congolese families in Murfreesboro have pulled together to comfort his grieving wife and children. The hope is for support to also continue coming from outside the refugee community as well.

"Like what we used to do in the South, if a neighbor moves in, we take a pie to them or we take a cake. Why do we not do that with the refugees? Why do we not do it with those who are different?" asked Kattih.

"I tell people all the time, the least you can do to a refugee family if you meet them in the street is to smile." He says it's a brief interaction that tells people they are worthy of human kindness.

And if folks want to help in a more tangible way?

"If someone wants to contribute to the fund continually, we can give it to the family to help with the random expenses when she delivers."

People have already stepped up to ensure the cost of Abwe's funeral is one less burden his family will bear, a practical application of "loving thy neighbor."

"Look at the GoFundMe account. That's the community," said Kattih. "This is the community. This is what it takes."

A Christian service for Washikala Wabyola Abwe will be held Saturday, June 3, from 10 a.m. to noon at Murfreesboro Funeral Home. The "quiet, gentle soul," as friends describe him, will be laid to rest in Miller's Cemetery afterwards.

Friends and family said Murfreesboro Funeral Home's generosity is much appreciated, as well as that of Miller Cemetery.

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