By Niraj Warikoo | Detroit Free Press
When the Lyoya family arrived in the U.S. in 2014 after facing years of war and persecution in Africa, the refugees thought they had finally made it.
They had escaped earlier from conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo and were living in Malawi when they won asylum to live in the U.S., part of a growing number of refugees from Congo in Michigan.
“They told us that in America, there’s peace, there’s safety, you’re not going to see killing anymore, that it was basically a safe haven,” Dorcas Lyoya said during an interview through a translator Thursday.
But last week, her first-born son, Patrick Lyoya, died at the age of 26 after a police officer killed him with a bullet to his head after a struggle, in an incident that has outraged civil rights advocates and led to protests in Grand Rapids.
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In an interview Thursday with the Free Press, Dorcas Lyoya recounted her family’s struggles to flee the Democratic Republic of Congo. Over the past two fiscal years, FY 2021 and FY 2020, the largest number of refugees who settled in Michigan were from Congo, according to data from the U.S. State Department.
“What is so surprising,” she said, is the man who is “supposed to be protecting us is the one who shot my son. He’s supposed to be the protector of my family.”
The refugee dream has turned into a nightmare for the Lyoya family. Patrick was the first of six children of Dorcas and Peter Lyoya.
Patrick had worked in a small manufacturing plant, helping make auto parts, said his father, Peter, 51.
“He is the type of person that you will love to be around,” said his mother. He often would lighten her day, putting her ” in a good mood to make me laugh.”
After they arrived eight years ago, the family found odd jobs to survive.
Dorcas worked in a laundromat and Peter worked in a nursing home helping take care of people with disabilities. They decided to leave Congo after realizing their lives were in jeopardy.
“I’m very surprised and astonished,” she said, because she thought the family had left violence behind, only to “find in America the same thing has been following us.”
Dorcas and Peter Lyoya spoke inside Renaissance Church of God in Christ in Grand Rapids, where they and their attorneys had earlier addressed the news media. Dorcas wore traditional African robes, yellow and dark gray. They were accompanied by civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump and the mother of Breonna Taylor, who was a native of Grand Rapids killed by Louisville, Kentucky, police in a 2020 case that drew national protests.
“All of the mothers here, you know the pain that we go through to give birth to a child,” she said during the news conference through translator Israel Siku. “And as a parent, I was thinking that maybe it was my son who was going to bury me, assist me at my funeral. But it is astonishing, I am the one burying my son.”
In Congo, “we were in an area that was not safe, there was a war,” she said. “And I thought I had come to a safe land, safe place.”
Peter Lyoya said the death of his son shocked him.
“I didn’t believe that … there’s a genocide in this country,” he said. “I didn’t know that here in America, there can be execution style … to be killed by the police officer.”
Video footage of the incident showed Patrick Lyoya and a passenger were pulled over by the unnamed officer in a traffic stop. Lyoya appeared not to comply with the officer’s requests to stay in the car and to provide his driver’s license. He ran around the car, the officer tackled him and they appeared to struggle over the officer’s stun gun for about 90 seconds, Police Chief Eric Winstrom said. The Taser was deployed twice, but never made contact. Then, with the police officer on top and Lyoya face down on the ground, the officer shot him in the head.
“Patrick was a quiet kid, Patrick didn’t love to fight,” Peter Lyoya said. “He was not a brutal kid. … I never saw Patrick fight.”
Seeing the video footage “made me cry to see my son killed by a police officer for a small mistake,” said Peter Lyoya. “My heart was really broken. Right now, my life has come to an end. My life was Patrick, my son. I was thinking Patrick will take my place. And to see that my son was killed like an animal by this police officer.”
In recent years, refugees from Congo have become the largest refugee group settled in Michigan. In previous years, refugees from the Middle East were often the largest group in Michigan, but after Donald Trump became president, the U.S. tightened the door on Arab and Muslim refugees, leading to Congolese becoming the largest group.
Crump is calling for the officer’s name to be released, and that he be fired and charged. He called upon the Michigan Attorney General’s Office to investigate and prosecute.
“We are condemning Russian soldiers for shooting civilians in Ukraine in the back of the head,” Crump said. “Why aren’t we condemning police officers here in the United States of America shooting Black civilians in the back of the head? It’s a simple question. If it’s wrong in Ukraine … it’s wrong in Grand Rapids, Michigan.”