I saw fear and uncertainty reflected on many Burundians’ faces during my two-week volunteer teaching trip at Hope Africa University in Burundi. The President had announced that he would run for a third term in the 2015 elections, which sparked violent protests and civil unrest. This tiny African country had just emerged from a civil war in 2005 (with the Arusha Accord); memories of violence were still fresh in citizens’ minds.
Despite little to no media coverage from the West on this crisis, by May 2015 thousands of Burundians began to flee their country to Nyarugusu refugee camp in Tanzania, the same camp where my entire family still lives, and where I called home for five years (1997-2001). I cried in frustration and helplessness when my sisters told me the schools had to close to accommodate the influx of Burundian refugees. They were happy to use their schools as a safe haven for the Burundians, but this put their school year in jeopardy as there was no space to hold classes.
The pictures of desperate Burundian refugees reminded me of my life in a Nyarugusu tent: a door-shaped rectangle carved out of one of the short walls and served as the tent entrance. Muddy paths led between the rows of tents and served as roads. The tents were squeezed so closely together that a person could barely pass between them. Fathers, grandmothers and teenagers alike slept and sat outside their mud-stained tents on makeshift benches. My first day in Nyarugusu in 1997 brought renewed emotions and anger about the kind of life war had forced me into. Like everyone in Nyarugusu, I felt depressed when I started thinking about my broken dreams and bleak future. Thankfully, through the support of many I have overcome seemingly impossible barriers.
The population of Nyarugusu Camp has now doubled and more people flow into Nyarugusu daily. Established in November 1996, Nyarugusu remains the world oldest refugee camp. It has been home to over 65,000 Congolese for 19 years. The UNHCR has made drastic cuts to all basic needs in recent years; with the addition of over 60,000 Burundian refugees, the poor medical, nutritional, educational and sanitation structures of the camp are collapsing. The number of people dying of cholera and other preventable diseases continue to rise. Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and other humanitarian organizations have confirmed these reports. Two weeks ago, my five year old nephew almost succumbed to cholera and malaria in the camp. Although he survived (though he has ongoing stomach pain), over 25 children lost their lives to cholera within weeks.
In the refugee camp, each person receives a ration card for food and other minimal items. People must survive on the minimal food provided by the UNCHR – four kilograms of corn flour, two kilograms of beans or peas, a half litre of cooking oil, two cups of soya bean flour and some salt. People have to portion this food wisely to stretch these rations for two weeks.
Is there hope for us refugees? The more I personally experienced the UN’s leadership structure and policies as a refugee, the more I realized that hope for refugees would never be achieved through this dictatorial structure that steals everything from refugees in the name of help.
I hope that the world will unite to rally for the people in Nyarugusu Camp as they have done for the Zimbabwean lion that was recently shot by Dr. Palmer. I am in the process of registering The Msenwa Foundation as a Canadian charity to provide financial and professional support to widows, children and youth in Nyarugusu and DR Congo. I will also publish my memoir this fall with proceeds going to sponsor Nyarugusu high school graduates to study in universities. We are raising funds to sponsor two more students by January 2016. Please partner with us to achieve this goal. Feel free to contact us on ways you can help.