Dieudonne Kazzembe, left, an 18-year-old refu­gee from Congo, spent Father’s Day with his foster dad, Joe McGill, in the District. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

The meat grinder whirred to life as Dieudonne Kazzembe fed chunks of raw beef into the metal pan on top of the machine. On his father’s instruction, the 18-year-old increased the speed on the grinder, causing cylinder-shaped meat to ooze into the bowl on the kitchen counter.

“There we go,” Joe McGill said, grinning, as his 4-year-old son, Jack, puttered over to join the fun. “We got ground meat.”

McGill’s father, “Papaw,” was slouched on the sofa cradling 20-month-old Gavin, while the boys’ mother, Allison McGill, snapped photos from across the living room.

Joe McGill’s Father’s Day was complete. And so was Kazzembe’s.

Until last year, the teenager had never celebrated the occasion.

Born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kazzembe has almost no recollection of his biological parents, who died before he was 3.

He spent his early years with his grandparents in the eastern city of Goma. Just after his fifth birthday, rebel forces stormed their home, and Kazzembe watched as his grandfather was killed.

He moved to a refu­gee camp in Uganda with what was left of his family and stayed there for eight years. In 2014, in what he still describes as “a miracle,” Kazzembe was allowed to come to the United States as an unaccompanied refu­gee minor. He arrived in the District and lived in three foster homes before being placed with the McGill family in February 2018 by Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area.


McGill, left, and Kazzembe, with help from 4-year-old Jack McGill, grind meat for a cookout on Sunday. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

“It wasn’t like my other foster homes because this was a complete family. A mom, dad, kids. I hadn’t been in a family like that ever before,” Kazzembe said Sunday as he helped prepare for a family cookout.

Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area has placed about 100 unaccompanied refugee minors in foster homes since the 1980s.

“It was the summer of 2016 when we decided we wanted to really do this, to foster a child,” said Joe McGill, an analyst with the Transportation Security Administration. “Jack had just turned 2 and one of his favorite words was ‘home.’ He kept saying ‘home,’ ‘home,’ and I felt like it was haunting me because I kept thinking of these kids we were seeing in the news without a home.”

After undergoing a 10-week training program, the McGills were matched with a girl who was slated to arrive from Egypt, but they were soon notified that she would be unable to come because of the Trump administration’s tightening immigration restrictions.

This scenario repeated several times until Lutheran Social Services eventually told the McGills that they had a client who was already in the Washington region. Within weeks, Kazzembe arrived at their home on Capitol Hill.

“Oh boy, do I remember that day,” Allison McGill said.

Gavin was crying, Jack had just come out of the bathroom without pants, and Porter, the family’s 120-pound mixed-breed dog, decided to welcome Kazzembe by pouncing on him, she remembered, laughing. The McGills were worried that he would be overwhelmed, but the soft-spoken teenager had a different impression.

“I had never seen a family like this before. It was just like happiness was floating inside the house,” he said.


Kazzembe helps McGill prepare for the cookout Sunday. He lived in three other foster homes in the District before being placed with the McGill family in February 2018. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

In the year since joining the McGills, Kazzembe has thrived. On Saturday, he graduated salutatorian of his class at Cardozo Education Campus, and in August, he will attend Arizona State University on a full scholarship.

“He’s turned into a terrific young man,” McGill said, resting in front of a barbecue grill in the backyard. He rattled off a list of his son’s achievements, then added energetically, “Oh and what a natural driver. You should have seen the first time he parallel parked.”

He beamed at Kazzembe. “Clean as a whistle.”

Kazzembe speaks of his dad with equal admiration.

“He woke up one day and had this teenager in his house. And he just took me,” he said.

A week after Kazzembe moved in, McGill received a text from him that read: “goodnight dad.” It was the first time Kazzembe had referred to him as “dad.” McGill said he will always remember that text — as will Kazzembe.

“It felt really special because it was the first time in my life I had called anyone ‘dad,’ ” Kazzembe said, smiling shyly as he fiddled with flowers from a planter. “It was the first time I had someone to call ‘dad.’ ”