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Parted by war, family reunites

N.H. couple greet children they left behind in Congo

The children of a Manchester, N.H., couple who fled civil war in their native Congo arrived at Logan International Airport late Friday night, setting off an emotional reunion with their parents.

Shortly before 11 p.m. the seven children, five boys and two girls ages 7 to 18, finally cleared customs and met with their parents, who had been waiting patiently in the terminal for hours. Parents and children rushed toward each other and embraced in a group bear hug.

As their mother, Helene Simwerayi, cried, their father, Hubert Simwerayi, raised his arms and eyes to the sky. Then Helene embraced each child individually, giving them two years' worth of hugs.

All the children were given presents. The youngest, Chadrac, 7, received a soccer ball and, unable to wait, started booting it around the terminal.

''It's a good day for us," Hubert said, comparing it to his wedding day.

Earlier Friday, he said he just wanted to put his arms around his children and hold them ''for many minutes."

''I don't know how I can take all of them in my hands," he said. ''The main thing is to thank all people. I didn't believe I could find friends like these to help us until the children come [tonight]. It's a miracle, a miracle."

His wife didn't sleep Thursday night, thinking about a reunion that has taken two years, many tears, and countless sleepless nights worrying about the murderous roving rebel bands in their native country, who killed a cousin who at one point cared for the children.

''I am so happy," she said, a few hours before heading to Boston to pick up the children. ''I have many things for them. Many. Many."

US Representative Jeb Bradley, a New Hampshire Republican who was among the elected officials and many supporters who worked to reunite the family, said the hard work was all worth it.

''To see something like this is very rewarding," he said.

The Simwerayis fled the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo two years ago, expecting their children would join them in a few days.

Hubert, 46, was working as a human rights worker and Helene, 39, as a teacher when his activism became life-threatening. Hubert knew he was in danger, but felt he had to keep working to do something.

''Many people die without doing something," he said simply.

They knew they had to flee in September 2002, after he was beaten unconscious by rebels while Helene and the children hid.

The couple fled to the United States, leaving their children with relatives in Uganda. The children were supposed to soon follow, but their visas expired.

Hubert and Helene debated whether one should return, but friends persuaded them to try to resolve the visa issue in the United States. They also needed money for the plane tickets.

Once in the United States, they faced language and cultural differences as well as the paperwork nightmare of living in a new land. In their native country, Hubert's name is Simwerayi Hubert Wetemwami and Helene's given name is Batyo Helene Muyumbu. Helene speaks little English; Hubert slightly more.

Despite the language and cultural hurdles, they worked to get the children out of danger and into the United States.

The children had been scheduled to arrive in New Hampshire in June, but the embassy in Uganda turned them away because they did not have original copies of their birth certificates. Bradley's office later arranged to have the paperwork sent to the embassy.

Bradley said the children also had to have DNA tests to prove their identities. Another hurdle had to be crossed -- proving that two of the children, who the couple had adopted, were theirs.

Bradley's offices and those of Senators John Sununu and Judd Gregg helped, as did University of New Hampshire students, who helped raise money for the children's $12,500 airfare. The Ella Lyman Cabot Trust in Boston and Danny's Team, a charity based in Durham, N.H., also contributed.

Nina Glick Schiller, an anthropology professor at the University of New Hampshire, said crossing the last hurdle was an act of ''persistence" by the many people who had taken up the couple's cause.

The children had been granted permission to immigrate under a seldom used ''humanitarian parole" status for people in imminent danger, but government paperwork got in the way, she said.

''They had a right to come, but we weren't sure they'd be alive in five years. The waiting list is that long," she said.

Schiller said the family's friends are still raising money to help them get settled. The Simwerayis moved into a three-bedroom apartment last week in Manchester so they'd have more room for the children.

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