Thursday May 1, 2014, early in the morning: My wife and I accompanied by a close Tanzanian friend began our journey to Nyarugusu refugee camp in Kigoma province, on the far west side of Tanzania, near Lake Tanganyika. We boarded a plane at Julius Nyerere International Airport in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and took a three-hour long flight to Kigoma.
Landing in Kigoma not only brought so many positive emotions and anticipation to see family, friends and the place that I called home for five years, but it also reminded me of the torture and sufferings I went through during the war on the other side of the Lake Tanganyika, in my home district Fizi, Democratic Republic of Congo. Seeing Lake Tanganyika and touching its waters brought so many childhood memories: the lake that once connected me to the land of my ancestors, the place where I witnessed at an early age the killing, rape, and torture of many close family members and friends.
As I sat beside the Tanzanian side of Lake Tanganyika in Kigoma, so many memories came to mind as I walked close to Kilibizi, the place where I was called a refugee for the first time in my life. This was the place where I felt all my hopes and dreams for a better life, education, health, etc., were impossible and unattainable. This time, however, I felt I was a different Oliver who, through the support of many, overcame what seemed to be impossible.
An hour later, my wife, a Canadian born, finds herself on an overcrowded mini-bus heading to Nyarugusu refugee camp where my parents live. The first twenty minutes of the 4-hour trip felt promising as the road was in good shape. Suddenly, the smooth paved road ended, and we found ourselves on a dusty red road for the rest of the journey, eating the dust kicked up by our van and other passing vehicles. At the end of our trip, we couldn’t tell who was white and who was black – our new race was red! My wife and I, and our Tanzanian friend pastor Philip Patroba from Dar es Salaam, finally arrived at the village of Makere where my parents and church members were eagerly waiting for us. Finally, my wife meets her in-laws for the first time. And for me, tears of joy flowed down my face as I was reunited with my parents and sisters after a long time.
Friday, May 2 morning: We head to Nyarugusu Camp for the first time: the first time in 7 years for me, and the first time ever for my wife and Philip. We would lead a 2-day leadership seminar and also meet all my family members and many old friends. As the Catholic father drove us from Makere Parish where we stayed during our visit (7 kilometres from the camp), he tells us stories about the camp. The father spoke of various challenges that people in the refugee camp face daily, including malnutrition, poor sanitation, high level of poverty, violence against girls, lack of access to further education for high school graduates, poor housing, etc.
As we continued our journey, big signs welcomed us to Nyarugusu refugee camp: Kigoma Refugee Program; International Rescue Committee Program; World Food Program Humanitarian Aid; UNHCR and its participating member flags – with one quick look at the sign we see the Canadian flag. Seeing this flag made us think of hope, respect of human rights, and dignity. However, the reality on the ground tells us otherwise.
Nyarugusu Camp was established in November 1996 when hundreds of thousands of refugees fled war in the DR Congo. In the early years of the camp, many refugees thought that they would only be there for a couple months, then return to their homes. 18 years have now passed and many have nowhere else to call home: children born in the refugee camp are now graduating from high school with little hope to further their education. According to UNHCR 2014 statistics, the camp hosts over 68,909 refugees, mostly from Democratic Republic of Congo and some Burundians. Many refugees in the camp are extremely vulnerable as they have witnessed and experienced horrible forms of violence and torture in their home countries, including seeing family members killed in front of their eyes. After so many years in exile, many are unable to trace loved ones and feel they cannot return home. Moreover, DR Congo continues to be a place of upheaval with high reports of rape, other forms of violence against women, and no respect for human rights.
Talking with people and observing the living conditions, it is evident that people in Nyarugusu have special health needs and limited access to facilities that address their health needs. Due to overcrowding, they are susceptible to communicable diseases such as measles and cholera. They are also exposed to preventable diseases such as malaria. According to a UNHCR report (http://www.unhcr.org/pages/49e45c736.html), the situation in Nyarugusu camp, where over 68,909 refugees reside, continues to deteriorate as a result of limited funding. Refugee movements are restricted by the encampment policy in Tanzania, thus limiting self-reliance options and increasing dependence on humanitarian assistance. The camp has poor educational and health infrastructure in dire need of renewal. Many families in the camp do not have adequate shelter and family latrines.
During our visit to Nyarugusu, so many questions came to mind: Where is the hope for change? Why is there such little documentation about the current state of people in Nyarugusu? What do Nyarugusu refugees think is the key to change their situation? How can we partner with them?
People in the camp identified several needs: educational sponsorships for high school graduates; funding for children’s nutritional programs; support for family, youth, men and women’s projects; further trainings on leadership and politics, and other topics; and creating platforms to share their everyday realities with the world.
As we embark on this journey, we ask that you engage yourselves with these issues that are very real and urgent. We ask you to consider partnering with Nyarugusu refugees in one of the above mentioned areas. Please feel free to comment and email us with specific questions as we work together to transform lives in Nyarugusu.