Las Vegas Sun

November 26, 2014

Currently: 68° — Complete forecast | Log in | Create an account

Refugee agency alters program after recent sex assault cases

The recent arrests of two African refugees in the sexual assaults of young girls shocked the Las Vegas refugee community, especially after one man told officers he didn’t know the alleged abuse was wrong in the United States.

The arrests have prompted a Las Vegas refugee resettlement agency to expand an orientation program to reiterate that sexual assault isn’t allowed in the country. Las Vegas Ethiopian Community Development Council Inc.’s African Community Center, which resettles refugees from several countries, cautions that despite the similarities of the two cases, they mark the first such arrests among their hundreds of refugee clients.

“Sexual abuse is unforgivable in our culture,” said Congo refugee Luzau Balowa, 40, an African journalist who advocates for human rights in the Congo. “Incest in our culture calls for isolation from the community.”

Las Vegas refugees say sexual violence is an abomination in African culture and is illegal across the continent.

But with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a nation in west-central Africa, in the midst of warfare, sexual violence has become a weapon for Congolese soldiers, Balowa said. According to a United Nations report, more than 144,000 people fled the Congo last year.

The Las Vegas Ethiopian Community Development Council has received about 200 cases involving Congolese refugees since it organized in 2003, resettlement manager Izzeldin Rahman said. It works about 300 refugee cases each year.

Click to enlarge photo

Kalunga Kanyela

Kalunga Kanyela, 37, was arrested June 12 and charged with three counts of sexual assault, four counts of lewdness with a victim under 14 and one count of open and gross lewdness.

His wife told officers she walked into the living room of their house near Maryland Parkway and Twain Avenue the previous day and saw her husband push a young female relative off him, police said.

Authorities said Kanyela told police investigators he sexually assaulted his young relatives because it is allowed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, police said.

“There should be no corner of the world where rapists should hide from justice,” said Margot Wallstrom, the United Nations’ secretary general’s representative on sexual violence in conflict. “Very often we call it cultural when we don’t understand it, but it is not inevitable. It can be stopped.”

Since the first war in the Congo broke out in 1996, about 200,000 women have been raped or sexually assaulted — a number Wallstrom says is underestimated because most women don’t report these crimes.

She said she has spoken to leaders in the Congo in an attempt to stop sexual assaults, particularly those tied to the war. Sexual assault is illegal, but there are instances when law enforcement agencies look past the crime, Wallstrom said.

She said her council has launched a global “Stop Rape Now” campaign to raise public awareness and encourage politicians to address sexual violence.

Wallstrom said women bear the brunt of sexual assaults when villages are pillaged. “They have to fetch food and become front line soldiers,” Wallstrom said.

In a few cases, men who refuse to rape have suffered punishment and have been killed because of their resistance, Wallstrom said.

Balowa said he wants to bring attention to sexual assaults in the Congo — his articles once landed him in a Congolese prison for six months. He was tortured, lost all of his teeth and has a scar on his left eye as a reminder of his time held captive.

Balowa moved to Nevada in September 2008, then went through an orientation program at the African Community Center.

ECDC Managing Director Berihun Teferra described the center as a resettlement agency that offers a three-month program to educate refugees of all ethnicities. He said refugees receive information about the United States and are taught about laws before and after they arrive.

While sexual assault and child molestation are illegal in Africa, the center wants to reinforce the message among refugees: they must sign a document during the orientation program acknowledging such acts aren’t permitted in the United States. The program will place a greater focus on sexual assaults after the two recent arrests, he said.

Kanyela went through this program, as did another Congolese refugee arrested in April and charged with sexually assaulting a young girl and an adult woman.

Click to enlarge photo

Iranzi Bahati

Iranzi Bahati, 21, was arrested April 22 and charged with 10 counts of lewdness with a victim under 14, 12 counts of sexual assault, two counts of battery, one count of open and gross lewdness and one count of battery with a deadly weapon.

A young girl told police Bahati was her mother’s boyfriend and he forced her to have sex with him on two occasions. Both incidents allegedly occurred while her mother was at work, she told police.

The first assault allegedly occurred April 13 when the girl was at her home with Bahati and her three sisters, police said. The girl told police she was in bed when Bahati called her out of the room she shared with her sisters.

The two went into the dining room, where Bahati asked her if she wanted to have sex with him, according to an arrest report. The girl said, “no,” and turned to go back to bed when Bahati grabbed her by the wrist, pushed her into another bedroom and began forcibly removing her clothes, the report said.

Bahati allegedly slapped the girl when she resisted and held her down on the bed, sexually assaulting her, police said.

On April 20, the girl told her mother she was unhappy in the home, and her mother began to throw her out of the residence. While packing her belongings, the girl became distraught and went into her bedroom, where she tried to hang herself, police said.

One of her sisters found her in the act and notified her mother, police said. The girl then told her mother that Bahati had sexually assaulted her, the report said.

Bahati was found at the Holiday Royal Hotel, 4505 South Paradise Road, and arrested.

Bahati told police he had sexual contact with the girl on two occasions. But he said she came into his room while he was sleeping and “forced herself upon him.” His story was inconsistent with accounts given by his girlfriend and the young girl.

He was booked into the Clark County Detention Center on $568,000 bail. The children in Bahati’s home were placed in Child Protective Services custody.

Despite the recent cases, these two clients are the first to be accused of sexual assault in the last seven years, Teferra said.

The center is currently handling only sponsor cases, where refugees live with a relative already living in Las Vegas. Both Kanyela and Bahati came to Nevada without a sponsor, Rahman said.

“Our program is about adjustment and you have to adjust yourself to succeed in this society,” Rahman said.

Bahati’s preliminary hearing has been continued until Aug. 27, according to jail records. Kanyela will appear for his hearing today at the Regional Justice Center in Las Vegas.

Join the Discussion:

Check this out for a full explanation of our conversion to the LiveFyre commenting system and instructions on how to sign up for an account.

Full comments policy

Previous Discussion: comments so far…

Comments are moderated by Las Vegas Sun editors. Our goal is not to limit the discussion, but rather to elevate it. Comments should be relevant and contain no abusive language. Comments that are off-topic, vulgar, profane or include personal attacks will be removed. Full comments policy. Additionally, we now display comments from trusted commenters by default. Those wishing to become a trusted commenter need to verify their identity or sign in with Facebook Connect to tie their Facebook account to their Las Vegas Sun account. For more on this change, read our story about how it works and why we did it.

Only trusted comments are displayed on this page. Untrusted comments have expired from this story.

No trusted comments have been posted.