Community helping family of refugees stay together after single father of 6 passes away

Posted at 9:44 PM, Mar 05, 2016
and last updated 2016-03-05 23:44:55-05

SALT LAKE CITY -- After surviving for years in refugee camps, six kids from Burundi, Africa are now living in Salt Lake City but fear they might be separated after their single father passed away last week.

The oldest son, 19-year-old Mugisha Jesus Mare, is trying to keep them all together and may have found some help from the community.

Standing in his front lawn with his five siblings, Mare said the news caught the family off guard.

“At first it’s like a shock,” Mare said. “...You sort of, you go, wait, what?”

Last week he got the news his father, Leonidas Nkurunziza, had passed away from a sudden case of pneumonia, a condition that claimed the life of Mare's mother just a six years ago.

“I just always thought that my dad was going to be here, even though my mom is gone, I just always thought that my dad would always be here,” said 17-year-old Amandine Akilana, the second eldest sibling. (As is customary for many in Burundi, the siblings do not share a family name.)

The family moved to Salt Lake City from Burundi seven years ago, and Amandine says it was a struggle at times with eight people living in a two bedroom apartment, and now this.

“The concerns I kind of had is whether or not they would take away my little sisters," she said.

The family is getting help from their local congregation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“This family, they are fighters, they are survivors, and they will do anything to stay together,” said Kristi Runyan, a Young Women’s president in the local congregation.

Runyan said members of their congregation and others beyond their community stepped in to help.

“It’s been incredible, I've been overwhelmed emotionally at the outpouring of love that, not just the people in Utah, not just with the LDS Church, but, really, with the entire state," Runyan said.

A GoFundMe page created on behalf of the family has raised more than $23,000.

And, better than the money, Runyan and others in the LDS Church have helped Mare start the paperwork to become his siblings’ legal guardian. Mare said he knows it’s a big responsibility, but he said, like his father, he’s an optimistic guy.

And, thanks to those around him, he’s not alone.

"The people around you make you stronger, and be able to handle and go to the next step,” he said.