What about education?

“Welcome to the refugee camp,” says my husband in his matter-of-fact voice.

Signs as we enter Nyarugusu refugee camp

Signs as we enter Nyarugusu refugee camp


Entering Nyarugusu refugee camp. May 1, 2014. Copyright. All rights reserved.

Entering Nyarugusu refugee camp. May 1, 2014. Copyright. All rights reserved.

We had just arrived at the main UN headquarters in Nyarugusu refugee camp. I glance around my surroundings. People were gathered in clusters – some standing with bicycles, others holding children, others sitting on log benches under trees. I saw one woman trying to submit a paper to the UN through a gate. Everything seemed to move in slow motion: maybe because people don’t have jobs to rush to, farms to cultivate, food to gather, and they cannot leave the camp. We drive to my in-laws’ home. My husband directs the driver: “turn left here; take a right at the next dirt road; I remember walking this road so many times.” His family has lived in the refugee camp for 18 years.

Meeting my sisters-in-law for the first time. They welcomed me with such love. Copyright. All rights reserved.

Meeting my sisters-in-law for the first time! They welcomed me with such love. Copyright. All rights reserved.

Multiple women burst out of the house and run to the car to greet us: “Kaka! Wifi!” Hugs, joy, laughter, tears…I was overwhelmed by the love and joyful embrace of my sisters-in-law. It’s such a joy and honour to finally meet my new family: Mom, Dad, sisters, and extended family. The language barrier made communication very difficult, and we did our best to communicate in English and Swahili. This was a really humbling experience for me. Nonetheless, we found ways to talk, make jokes, and share about our lives. I love and appreciate each of them. As we gather for lunch, extended family and close friends arrive. There must have been at least 70 people: aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, children of nieces & nephews, grandchildren… half the family appears to be under 30. I meet my new brothers, cousins, sisters, nieces, nephews. I struggle to ask questions in broken Swahili: “Habari za shule [How is school]?” Nzuri [Good],” they respond.

Sharing a meal and spending time with family in Nyarugusu.  Copyright. All rights reserved.

Sharing a meal and spending time with family in Nyarugusu. Copyright. All rights reserved.

Students persevere in their studies: primary school attendance in the refugee camp is 97% and secondary school is 87%. They face dilapidated buildings, few latrines (washrooms), 1 teacher for 50-100 students, 5-9 students per school desk, and 10 students per textbook. On top of this, girls face further barriers: the risk of rape, as they travel long and isolated distances to collect firewood; early marriage; and pregnancy. Despite these challenges, high school students in the refugee camp excel: last year, they wrote the DR Congo national exam and came out top of the region that they are connected to in DR Congo.Without scholarships, however, they have no opportunity for post-secondary education (DFID, 2013).

High school students excel despite lack of materials, teachers, schools, latrines, and other social barriers. Copyright. All rights reserved.

High school students in the refugee camp excel despite lack of materials, teachers, schools, latrines, and other social barriers. Copyright. All rights reserved.

As I sit with my new family, my sister-in-law slips me a brown paper envelope. “This is for you.” I open it: Dear Madam, I hereby humbly request assistance for a university scholarship. I am a Congolese by citizenship. I have a high school certificate and have worked 4 years as a secondary school teacher. I would deeply appreciate your assistance in seeking a scholarship. Although employed by the UN, teachers receive only 18,000 Tanzanian shillings per month (~$11 CDN). To compare, 1lb. peanuts costs 2,000 TZ shillings. I didn’t know what to say. I imagined myself in this young man’s situation: a young man my age, who has no hope of leaving the refugee camp unless he has funds to study. I felt guilty that my home country has provided me with so many opportunities in life, yet he has been denied even the basics to survive. I knew was also frustrated that I couldn’t promise a scholarship in that moment. Later that evening, I finally allowed all the emotions I had held for the whole day to overwhelm me. As my grief pushed tears out, I felt a physical aching in my chest as I thought of the conditions in Nyarugusu. If I hadn’t seen the situation for myself, I almost wouldn’t have believed that people live in such desperate situations in this day and age.

High school friends come to visit and surprise us with an extremely generous, humbling gift. These friends graduated with my husband in 2001 and still live in Nyarugusu.

High school friends surprise us with an extremely generous, humbling gift. These friends graduated with my husband in 2000 and still live in the refugee camp. After high school, there are no educational opportunities in Nyarugusu.  Copyright. All rights reserved.

Talking with my husband, though, who is himself a high school graduate from Nyarugusu, I was struck by how possible it is to provide hope – at least to some. A full 4-year university career costs about $5000 CDN in Burundi: this means $1250/year for 4 years. How can we say the situation is hopeless for Nyarugusu refugees when the required investment is relatively little? Many people invested in him as struggled to complete his university degree, and he is now a licensed social worker in Canada, and uses his profession to provide hope to others. As our plane touched down in Canada on May 16, my mind was already racing: what can I do? Who can help? There is great urgency to provide hope, especially for young people, who have no hope for the future unless they leave Nyarugusu. As a Canadian, so many times I have thought and heard others say: “There’s just so many problems in the world. What can we do? I don’t think much will ever change.” But changes in individuals’ lives create change in the family and community. Personally, I think it’s worth every effort we have. We have identified 5 people from the refugee camp who could start university in January 2015 if funds were available. We are now seeking partnerships with individuals, churches, and organizations to make this a reality. Please join us: ask questions, reflect on these realities, and consider what you might be able to do in response.

Nyarugusu camp: my once-called home

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.


Philip and I enjoying Lake Tanganyika for the first time in several years. DR Congo is visible in the background. Copyright. All rights reserved.

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.


My wife and I meeting my parents and sister at Makere. Copyright. All rights reserved.

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.


Housing in Nyarugusu. Copyright. All rights reserved.

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.


Participants in 2-Day Leadership Seminar, Nyarugusu Refugee Camp, May 2-3, 2014 (Facilitators: Pastor Philip Patroba, Oliver M. Mweneake). Copyright. All rights reserved.

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.