10-27-2016  11:22 pm      •     

EUGENE, Ore. (AP) -- The soldiers came in the middle of the night, pounding on the door with the butts of their rifles until Richard Kitumba and his brother were too frightened to stay hidden inside.
What followed was a night of terror as the renegade Congolese soldiers looted the house and forced the children to haul large, heavy bundles of their family's possessions to a military truck many blocks away.
It was dark, and the night was alive with the sound of machine guns and rifles as soldiers stripped an entire neighborhood, killing anyone who resisted or tried to lock them out.
Kitumba and his family actually were lucky; they survived the night and what is sometimes called the Second Congo War, a conflict so violent that the death toll of 5.4 million is second only to World War II.
That was a much different time and a far different life for Kitumba, now a University of Oregon student and resident of Springfield.
But even with his life in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the past, Kitumba can't forget. And what fills his thoughts the most is the orphans; more than 4 million children in the Congo were orphaned by the war, many after witnessing unspeakable violence.
``Some of these kids have seen their parents shot, or worse,'' Kitumba, 35, says in solid but accented English.
His desire to help those children led Kitumba to found City of Refuge International, a Springfield-based relief organization that finds foster families for orphaned Congolese children and helps provide them with food, clothing, education and medical care.
With help from Pastor David Lanning and the congregation at Springfield Faith Center, City of Refuge has placed 93 children with carefully screened foster families.
It also has a micro-loan program that allows families to buy a goat that provides milk, with the animal's first offspring going back to the organization to be made available to another family.
City of Refuge is small by relief organization standards. It raised just short of $100,000 in 2008 (the most recent year for which tax records are available), much of it from local donors and fundraisers.
It has another major fundraiser coming up on July 10 at the church.
Kitumba says that by doing whatever he can for the orphans of the DRC, he hopes to simply draw some attention to the larger issues facing that country.
Even after a war that saw millions killed, the Congo is well under the radar of average Americans, and Kitumba hopes that by focusing on the nation's plight, more people will be willing to help.
``In my heart I want people to know about the Congo,'' he said. ``The reason we want people to know about this is we want to help as many people as we can.''
Kitumba escaped the country thanks to his education. He earned a teaching degree and was teaching English when he began working for some American missionaries, which led to a visit to the United States.
When violence escalated in the Congo, he was granted asylum and citizenship in Canada. A man of deep faith, he had taken up missionary work himself while still in Africa.
He continued to speak at churches in America, which eventually connected him with Lanning and Springfield Faith Center.
Lanning is now chairman of City of Refuge International and Kitumba is its president. Other church members also serve on the board.
Kitumba says City of Refuge International tries to spread its work as far as it can by buying everything it needs in the Congo. That way, money donated to the group not only helps the orphans but also the local farmers and merchants.
``If you help one child, you really help dozens of families,'' he said.
The organization is based in the city of Kamina, where it was able to purchase a three-acre site. It has built an 8-foot-high security wall around the property and hopes to build a kind of community center where children will get schooling, medical care and other services.
Kitumba hopes to return to Kamina in August, and if things work out, make trips back every two years. He's now a family man himself.
After moving to Springfield he met and married his wife, Erin, a graduate student in family therapy who had previously done relief work in Africa and Asia. They have a 5-month-old son, Kaizen.
If anything, that's made him more determined to help the children of the Congo.
``I'm very, very excited, because lives have changed and we have put smiles on the faces of these children,'' he said. ``And we couldn't have done it without the generosity of the people of Springfield and Eugene.''

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