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After Patrick Lyoya was killed by Grand Rapids police officer, Congolese society was on edge

The man who was killed by a Grand Rapids police officer, Mich., Had just moved into his own place and was ready to settle down.

Patrick Lyoya's father, Peter, throws a flower into his grave on April 22.
Patrick Lyoya’s father, Peter, throws a flower into his grave on April 22. (Joshua Lott / The Washington Post)

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – Patrick Lyoya had just moved into his own place – a home with three bedrooms, he proudly told his loved ones. He invited friends to come by for a barbecue and his mother to spend the night. As a 26-year-old, he told his father he was ready to settle down.

The Lyoya family had come a long way in the search for stability. After fleeing the violence in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, they spent more than a decade in a refugee camp in Malawi. In 2014, they gained access to the United States and landed in western Michigan, where Peter and Dorcas Lyoya worked on small jobs and shared a modest apartment with their six children.

Patrick, the couple’s eldest son, had a full-time job as a factory worker at a vehicle factory in Grand Rapids. While he had Sometimes struggling to find his way after arriving in the United States, he had big goals for himself – like buying a house for his mother.

But if he aspired to the American dream, it would be an American nightmare. On April 4, Lyoya was shot dead by a Grand Rapids police officer who had stopped him after noticing that his license plate did not match the car he was driving; The Detroit Free Press reported that it belonged to his former roommate. Video of the meeting showed a foot hunt and a fight over a Taser. Lyoya was lying face down in the grass when the officer, later identified as Christopher Schurr, fired a single shot in the back of the head.

“That’s why the family is so broken. Because he represented hope for them. “

– Patient Baraka, Congolese refugee and family friend

Within minutes of being pulled over, Lyoya – who loved to teach traditional Congolese dances and was quiet with strangers but a comedian to her friends – was dead.

“His biggest dream was to be able to buy a home for his mother or build a home for his mother so she could say, ‘My son, I brought you to America and now–‘” said a Congolese refugee and family . friend, patient Baraka. “And that’s why the family is so broken. Because he represented hope for them. “

That violence found them in America, the place that was supposed to offer security, has shaken Lyoyas and the larger Congolese refugee community in Grand Rapids, a city of 200,000 people located less than an hour off the shores of Lake Michigan. At a steady stream of protests and press conferences held since the shooting, Peter and Dorcas Lyoya have spoken of their shock at losing their son to a U.S. police officer.

In an interview at their apartment in Lansing, where photographs of Patrick hung on the walls, mournfully crowded the living room and Congolese meals simmered on the stove, Peter Lyoya mentioned it again.

“When we came here to the United States, we knew we [ran] away from war and violence, and we came here to America, to a safe haven, ”he said through Israel Siku, who has acted as interpreter for the family. “What’s so surprising and amazing is that I lost my son here in America.”

That feeling is shared by many in Michigan’s growing Congolese refugee community.

Robert S. Womack, a Kent County commissioner who includes Grand Rapids, brought the family to a meeting with the police chief days after the shooting and has been by their side ever since. Womack, co-chair of the governor’s Black Leadership Advisory Council, described Congolese society as “wounded and in shock” at what happened, noting that many refugees “never really got a chance to be briefed by us about our experience as black people with the police.”

The Grand Rapids Police Department has been accused of bias, and a study commissioned by the city showed that black drivers were twice as likely to be stopped as white drivers. After a series of high-profile incidents involving colored people, the Michigan Department of Civil Rights began investigating the agency in 2019. Lyoya’s shooting is being investigated by Michigan State Police; the Kent County Prosecutor will determine whether it is justified to prosecute on criminal charges.

Police killings of Patrick Lyoya come after previous investigations and changes

Womack said the African American community was “shocked” that Congolese “did not believe the police would do such a thing.”

A friend of Lyoya, who is also a refugee from Congo, Jonathan Mukendi, said he is now more afraid of the police. After Lyoya was killed, he said, an officer pulled him over to nearby Allendale and asked to look at his cell phone to prove he was on his way to where he said he was.

Mukendi wondered if police had the right to go through his phone. But when he thought of his dead friend, he was afraid to quarrel.

“What if I start arguing with him and there’s no camera, no one there?” he asked. He added: “When it happens to one of your close people, you feel like, ‘Okay, this is real.'”

There were calls for change at Lyoya’s funeral, along with prayers that his death should not be in vain. He was hailed by Pastor Al Sharpton, called an American with the great distinction of rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.) And mourned by a crowd of more than 1,500, whose members were often on their feet, some with fists in the air.

“This is not just an issue affecting Grand Rapids,” said civil rights lawyer Ben Crump, who represents the family. “This is not just a problem affecting the state of Michigan. This is an issue that affects all of humanity. Because Patrick was a human being, and Patrick’s life meant something.”

His body lay in a white open coffin draped in the blue flag of the Democratic Republic of Congo. He was dressed in a white suit with black lapels. A banner under the coffin read, “We have the right to live!” in several languages. A large number of people were waiting to show their respect before the service; at least two leaned in to kiss him.

In the front row, his mother rocked back and forth, tears streaming down her face, and his father sat with his head bowed. At times, relatives slipped to the floor in their grief.

“Patrick came to America looking for a better life,” Sharpton said under the tribute, “and ran into an America we know all too well.”

Born in 1996, Lyoya arrived in the United States in his late teens and attended high school in Lansing before moving to the Grand Rapids area, about an hour away. There, his family said, he worked in a turkey company and then got the job of making car parts.

On Facebook, he shared photos of himself posing in stylish outfits – black jeans, rivet shoes, colorful shirts. “Life is good without stress,” he wrote in the caption to a photo. “Satisfied with my life,” he wrote in another post. He liked football, music and dance and attended a church where he occasionally helped to interpret, said Mukendi’s brother Daniel, also a friend of Lyoya, who described him as “a good man” and “a cool guy”.

But Lyoya also ran into legal problems and sometimes served time in county jails. In 2015, the year after his family’s arrival in America, he was arrested on charges of driving under the influence. He eventually pleaded guilty, records show. Several approaches to law enforcement followed. They were usually misdemeanors driving-related offenses, such as driving without a driver’s license, failure to stop at the scene of an accident and illegal use of a vehicle.

Lyoya was also arrested twice on charges of domestic violence. In 2017, he was charged with a misdemeanor and convicted. On April 1, another charge was filed for domestic violence against him. The traffic stop that would put an end to his life came three days later.

Lyoya seemed to allude to his problems in a Facebook post from August 2020. He wrote that he wanted to get things right, saying, “I’m the first son, and I usually [expletive] it up. “

“This year I’m trying,” he added.

Family and friends remember Lyoya as generous and loving. The Mukendi brothers knew Lyoya from their childhood together in the Malawi refugee camp, but lost contact when Lyoya’s family first traveled. Years later and a world away, they ran into each other at a bus stop in Lansing.

“How great to see someone you grew up with,” Daniel Mukendi pondered. “We almost missed the bus.”

The Mukendi family was still unfamiliar with America and were not sure how to navigate their new home. Lyoya gave them cell phones the next day and bought them clothes later, showed them where to shop, introduced them to American food, and taught them how to drive a car. He continued to live with Mukendis for years, calling them a “different family.”

Lyoya’s father described him as a hard worker, a “helper for the family.”

“Every time Patrick got paid, he called his siblings and said, ‘What do you want me to bring to you?’ said Peter Lyoya. “Patrick was the person who really took care of his siblings, his parents.”

He had thought that one day his firstborn son would take his place as the family patriarch. Instead, when a cold rain fell, he and his wife and children saw two diggers lower Patrick’s coffin into a vault and place it in a hole in the ground. Mourners formed a circle around the tomb and sang in Swahili. One by one, friends and family approached with flowers.

His mother looked into the hollow cave and cried as she remembered her son telling her about the three-bedroom house. She asked, “Is this this house you told me you rented?”

“Patrick,” she continued, “I just want to tell you to go in peace.”

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