From failed asylum seeker to immigration legal expert bound for a PhD, this is the story of Mpanzu Bamenga.
Bamenga ends yet another one of his animated conversations at the 20-year commemorative event of Dutch refugee foundation Vluchtelingen in de Knel, where he works as a social legal officer. Dressed in a tailored black suit, the 26 year old seems the type who is at ease with all walks of life.
"Hello," he says readily, with a firm handshake. "You're here for the interview." His manner is friendly but serious. A question about his flight story from the DRC is deemed irrelevant. He explains how in the past, his sense of self got washed away when people fixated on that aspect of his life. He'd rather be discussing what he is doing now - helping others who have trajectories similar to his own. But still, he indulges the query.
"At first it felt like a big adventure coming to the Netherlands. I remember living in the refugee camp and meeting so many different people," he recalls. "Yet again, the situation where we lived in was so bizarre. My mother, brother and I, slept in a dorm with 50 other people. Later on, they gave us a room which we shared with another family."
Born in the DRC's capital of Kinshasa, Bamenga came to the Netherlands as an asylum seeker. He was just eight years old. Before long, he was enrolled in school, doing what others his age were doing. Yet after 13 years, his family's asylum application process came to an abrupt end. They were given four weeks to leave the country.
This is when the budding immigrant activist first sprang into action. At the time, Bamenga was studying immigration law at Fontys Hogescholen, a university in the Dutch city of Eindhoven. Inspired by precisely what he was learning, he drafted an official appeal and sent it to the Dutch minister of immigration.
He drew on the many contacts he had made through his studies. During his internship working at Dutch Parliament for the Christian Democratic Party (CDA), he had even researched and wrote a report on contemporary family law issues.
"What would have happened if I wasn't a law student? What if I didn't see through despite all the obstacles? What if I wasn't so headstrong?" he asks in a distinct accent that recalls the Dutch province of Brabant in which he grew up. "I would have been in Congo now, after having lived in the Netherlands for 13 years. I was so mad to see that things work this way."
Not long after sending off the letter, Bamenga received a call from the Dutch Immigration and Naturalisation Department (IND). He, his mother and his brother were allowed to stay. Apparently, his message was convincing.
Relief and happiness were his initial feelings, but they soon gave way to anger. "I have seen how asylum seekers are treated. But when you're willful, you can really do something, but if you're not, you can't do anything," he says.
"Hey man, this is Africa!"
After his internship with Parliament, Bamenga volunteered in Ghana, during which he gave high schoolers debate lessons. Since having left, that was the first time he set foot on his native continent again. It brought a sense of homecoming and culture shock both.
"The day I landed in Accra, was the same day president Obama was there, too. There were flowers everywhere for the festivities. I thought they were for me," he laughs. "But what shocked me the most was the laidback attitude towards one's own dire situation. If a bus doesn't show up or a child sleeps in the street, they say: 'Hey man, this is Africa!' But when something extraordinary happens they say it's God's divine intervention. To me it means, people are not taking matters into their own hands."
Rapping and rights
After everyone has left the networking event we continue the conversation. Bamenga has adapted seamlessly into Dutch society - and one might venture to guess the Benelux as a whole. "From Monday till Wednesday I'm in the Netherlands, and the rest of the week I'm in Belgium for my studies," he explains, now outside the building heading to the bus station. Not only is he working for Vluchtelingen in de Knel, but he is currently enrolled as a PhD student in European immigration and asylum law at the Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB).
In his spare time he loves to play football and has been known to rap about politics under the handle Blackpan. He currently lives with his girlfriend, though says that before starting a family of his own, he plans to return to Africa. He hopes to share the knowledge he has acquired in order to show locals how to help themselves.
As he puts it: "I want to fight for those struggling to get their rights. My mum always used to say: "Mpanzu, you're the master of your own destiny!"'