Congo-born immigrant, homeless man takes a shot at the American dream

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By DOUG LIVINGSTON
TheNewsOutlet.org

Bamuamba Kabeya is the best homeless chess player at Haven of Rest Ministries, a Market Street shelter in Akron.

He’s not the best because of his talent, two engineering degrees or the knowledge he wields as a graduate assistant of statistics.

He’s the best because he knows the rules.

For chess and life he said, “castle as fast as you can … They know that I beat them. I beat my fellow American,” Kabeya touts with a rhythmic African accent.

Kabeya arrived at the homeless shelter about a year ago. He carries his life – toothbrush, clothes, shoes, comb, books – in an ottoman-sized purple tote. The tote stays at the shelter each day as he walks across Market Street around 8 a.m. to the University of Akron, where he’s a graduate assistant and student.

Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the 1960s, Kabeya is too proud to admit his age. His late father bought him a plane ticket for Belguim in 1978, where Kabeya said he earned an engineering degree from Les Facultes Universitaires Catholiques de Mons.

While in Belguim, one of his six siblings, Julie Kabeya, applied Bamuamba for a visa through the U.S. Department of State’s Diversity Visa program. She wanted her family near, so she sponsored his visa.

His application was accepted, and he arrived at his sister’s home in Columbus in 1997.

The visa lottery program supplied Kabeya with a job at Gate Gourmet, an airline catering company. The job, in turn, allowed Kabeya to leave his sister’s home.

“It was an easy job, packing. I am new in America, and there is no reason to refuse that first job,” Kabeya said.

His son, Moses, was born around the time Kabeya was laid off in 2003. He had one of the 135,000 aviation jobs that disappeared after 9/11.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering technology at DeVry University in 2004 and left Columbus in 2007 after troubled relations with his wife. Without a vehicle, he hasn’t seen his son since.

In 2007, a colleague from Devry suggested that he pursue a master’s degree at Youngstown State University. He failed to meet the GPA requirement and left Youngstown for Canton a year later with $30,000 in student loan debt.

In Canton, Kabeya unsuccessfully looked for employment between 2008-10. He had no money and no means to get it.

He survived through “charity and friends and God.”

“As you see, I’m alive. God. God’s intervention through people” made that possible, Kabeya said.

His strong faith in God clashes with his pragmatic view of life and a critical view of the American lifestyle.

He’s an immigrant who strongly opposes illegal immigration. He lives at the mercy of others, but wields opinionated conservative beliefs.

“You have in front of you an opinionated guy,” Kabeya admits. In the communal area of the homeless shelter, he doesn’t shy from provocative discussion.

His thought process is systematic and calculated. It’s fitting for an engineering graduate and a statistics instructor.

“He’s inquisitive. He’s intelligent. He’s outspoken in his beliefs … He’s biblical,” said Brian McGuinness, a Bible class leader at the church Kabeya attends every Sunday.

“He’s a genuine person. With Bam, what you see is what you get. There’s no pretense. No hidden agenda.”

McGuinness, who invited Kabeya to his home for Thanksgiving dinner, said he is “blessed” to have Kabeya in his life.

In at least one way, Kabeya is equally blessed to have McGuinness around.

Before Kabeya could apply to the University of Akron, he needed Calculus III, a prerequisite for the graduate program. With $30,000 in student loans, Kabeya enrolled in the class without knowing how he would afford tuition.

His Bible group at The Chapel on Fir Hill and McGuinness, who Kabeya calls his “brother in Christ,” gathered $800 to help finance the class and jumpstart Kabeya’s education. He passed the class and entered the graduate program.

At the University of Akron, he tutors statistics and grades papers for professors. He plans to tutor on the side to supplement the $500 he earns every two weeks from his graduate assistant position.

A portion of his earnings is stashed away for an apartment after he leaves the shelter in January. The long-term residential program at Haven of Rest Ministries provides room and board for nine to 12 months. He’s been there nearly a year.

He’s not sure where he’ll live, but he’s pragmatic in choosing the right place.

“There are plenty people who will want (my) money. It is the market that will decide,” Kabeya said, though he’s leaning toward an apartment in the $300 range.

At the shelter he grabs his head, throbbing from a neglected toothache.

The tooth has become unbearable. As the winter becomes less agreeable, the pain surges and ebbs.

He’ll visit the emergency room, not because he has no insurance, but because he knows the rules.

“I am homeless with not a lot of means. I am going to the hospital,” Kabeya said. “I will go because I am aware of how the system works … The Constitution is good for me. American liberties are good for me.”

He may not be able to afford a dentist, but Kabeya can take care of himself. He educates himself on student loans and library books.

He knows how to eat and sleep free of charge.

“If he’s doing something to get himself out of the shelter and have a better life, then I am proud of him,” said Julie Kabeya, who last spoke to her brother in the summer.

Bamuamba Kabeya has plans. His ticket out of poverty is tapping into the tutoring business.

“The latest figures I heard, $9 billion industry. My share is there,” Kabeya said, confidently. “I can do it. Why? Because I have the skill; I know how to explain things; I know how to motivate people … I know my mathematics, and now I am putting statistics on top.”

“In short, I am in high demand, and I know it.”

TheNewsOutlet.org is a collaboration between the Youngstown State University journalism program, Kent State University, The University of Akron and professional media outlets including, WYSU-FM Radio and The Vindicator (Youngstown), The Beacon Journal and Rubber City Radio (Akron).