UPDATE: Good news came Thursday, March 8, for Democratic Republic of Congo native Toto Kisaku, who appeared at the Newark Asylum Office in Lyndhurst, New Jersey, to hear the disposition of his request for asylum. The verdict? Granted. “I feel very, very peaceful,” Kisaku said by phone this afternoon. “It was very exciting driving to New Jersey—so far away—taking a seat and waiting for the decision. The first thing they did is congratulate me.” The 39-year-old performance artist said he will now have more freedom to travel and connect with people around the country and in Europe to develop and showcase his art, which has drawn international attention for shedding light on the shocking persecution of Congolese children.
A Middletown artist from the Democratic Republic of Congo who was nearly executed while incarcerated in his home country found out this week that his request for asylum had been granted, with the help of students at the Quinnipiac University School of Law in Hamden.
Performance artist Toto Kisaku, 39, fled the Congo in 2015 with his 5-year-old son after escaping secret police, prison and torture at the hands of his countrymen. Represented pro bono by law students and advisers at Quinnipiac, he recalled his ordeal in a phone interview, acknowledging he was followed, apprehended, incarcerated and tortured by Congolese secret police, and was only able to escape with the help of a sympathetic guard who recognized him from his controversial performances.
What attracted the secret police, Kisaku said, was his illumination of a bizarre campaign by religious leaders in the Congo to persecute children accused of witchcraft and sorcery. With government complicity, pastors have been accusing Congolese youth as young as 5 of witchcraft and demanding money from poor families in exchange for exorcisms, he said. Since 2009, Kisaku had been traveling the country spreading the word through live performances about the phenomenon, which he claimed is leaving tens of thousands of young children murdered or homeless as families abandon them.
The premise of the campaign is “fake,” said Kisaku, who is being represented pro bono by a team of law students. “They are trying to get money from poor families, and they preach if you want to have money, you need to give money. They come to your house and try to get you to pay with your house or your car.”
As poor, uneducated families have been extorted and their children abandoned or killed, Kisaku said, the government has been complicit. Despite enacting a law prohibiting accusations of sorcery against children, leaders are not enforcing it, he said. “I decided to do a tour telling the story. It’s very, very sad because everything is broken. I began telling the story in [Congolese capital city] Kinshasa about the reality of life.”
Kisaku’s performance art, blending musical theater, stand-up comedy, hip-hop and dance, has grown in popularity, reaching international audiences and exposing the Congo’s severe wealth inequality. While on a tour of Congolese universities, Kisaku ruffled some feathers. It became evident in 2015 that secret police were following Kisaku, disrupting shows and even persuading some venues to cancel, he said. Agents began closing in on the artist in 2015, forcing Kisaku into hiding with the help of some university students, but he was eventually captured by the secret police, he said. While being held, Kisaku was tortured, witnessed fellow citizens being executed, and quickly realized he had been marked for death.
“He was able to escape because one of the individuals working at that facility—one of guards—recognized him,” said Alaina Louis, a legal intern at Quinnipiac volunteering on Kisaku’s case. “He already had tickets to visit the United States in celebration of his son’s birthday in January 2016. When he was able to escape, he moved forward with a plan to leave the Congo.”
Kisaku received help from beneficiaries in his home country, and after arriving in the United States, was lucky to be referred to Quinnipiac’s pro bono student program, which is supported and enriched by a permissive student-practice rule in Connecticut. In the meantime, he has been working at a gas station to make ends meet.
Student volunteers completed all of the paperwork necessary to seek asylum through the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Division of the Department of Homeland Security. The division’s Newark Asylum Office in Lyndhurst, New Jersey granted asylum to Kisaku Thursday.
Program adviser Sheila Hayre, a visiting associate professor of law at Quinnipiac, said decisions often amount to the difference between life and death. “Basically if the decision is positive, he’s on the road to becoming a legal resident and citizen, but as you can tell, half of his heart is in the Congo,” she said. “If his petition is denied, he goes before an immigration judge and he’ll be in removal proceedings and will have to fight to remain here.”
Hayre acknowledged that, under the administration of President Donald Trump, petitions for asylum have become more restrictive. “Asylum is non-adversarial, but they ask more questions, and some are very probing and tough,” she said. “At this point, asylum law is pretty restrictive, regardless of what the administration has done. You can’t just be fleeing death to apply for asylum. You have to show that you’ve been persecuted. We’ve seen clients going almost back to certain death because of the requirements.”
Still, Hayre said she was confident Kisaku has established he was persecuted. “His life mission has been to speak out about injustice that is going on in the Congo.”
Legal intern Thai Chhay, who is also working on the case, expressed cautious optimism about Kisaku’s bid for asylum prior to Thursday’s decision. “It seems to have gone well. The asylum officers seem to be receptive, but we’re aware of the challenges,” he said. “We did this pro bono with an established law professor and have over 200 hours doing this case. Parts of me are optimistic, but a part of me wonders about all these other people who don’t have representation. It’s sort of an ambivalent, bittersweet kind of feeling. You can’t guarantee anything. You just do the best you can.”
Kisaku also expressed mixed feelings ahead of Thursday’s decision. “For the future, I am in a position where I can do something for my country. But at the same time I don’t know if I am happy, because I am sad to be so far from the Congo and far from the people who continue to fight against the government. At the same time, I am in the position that I can do something to inform people who don’t know what’s happening in the Congo.”
Kisaku’s new production, “Requiem for an Electric Chair,” exploring his detention and harrowing escape, is set to be featured at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas on June 22 and 23 in the Iseman Theater in New Haven, Connecticut.