Refugee Stories, Young Peace Journalists

Refugee Stories: Loamba Moke, human rights defender in Congo-Brazza: “The situation of Rwandan refugees in Congo is ambiguous”.

The following interview was done by Merveille Kakule Saliboko, a member of the Young Peace Journalists and a peace reporter based in Butembo, North Kivu, in eastern DRC.

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Loamba Moke, human rights defender in Congo-Brazza: “The situation of Rwandan refugees in Congo is ambiguous”.

After the genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994 (800,000 deaths among the Tutsi minority and moderate Hutu), a few thousand Rwandans had taken refuge in the Congo, a small country in Central Africa of about 5 million inhabitants after crossed the Democratic Republic of Congo. They are now scattered in many parts of the country and depend on agropastoral activities or petty trading. On them hangs the threat of statelessness due to the cessation of refugee status since December 31, 2017.

To better understand the situation, Mr. Loamba Moke, President of the Association of Human Rights and the Prison System (ADHUC), a civil society organization from Congo-Brazza, is online from Brazzaville. Interview with Merveille Kakule Saliboko, one of the Young Peace Journalists …

Mr. Loamba Moke, in mid-January, you published a statement in which you say that the Prime Minister of Congo-Brazza, Mr. Clement Mouamba, “just planned the genocide of the 8,460 Rwandan refugees” in the Congo. Today, how could we call these people? Refugees or migrants?

You are right to ask this question which is very delicate. As a human rights defender myself, I find it difficult to put an exact answer, to say what these non-exempt Rwandan refugees are becoming. Have they become migrants, stateless people? This is a very important question. Since the declaration of Prime Minister Clement Mouamba, the applicability of the conventions that Congo and Rwanda have had to sign internally, these conventions violate copiously and correctly the regional and international conventions. So, today, the situation Rwandan refugees in Congo is an ambiguous situation. We do not know which category to put these Rwandan refugees.

So, the Prime Minister’s statement of January 10, 2018 refers to the cessation of refugee status clause. What is the result of this statement?

After the Prime Minister’s statement, there were no effects of applicability. In principle, what we were waiting for was to see what the government should do to ask what the methodology is, what the means are … In fact, in the internal convention signed between the Congo and Rwanda, it is said that refugees who refused to go home, would be sentenced, arrested, extradited. You see that extraditing 8,460 refugees is not easy now to arrest all these people. To this day, the only difficulty that Rwandan refugees face is that they have no more papers, they cannot do any activities and therefore they are ransomed by the police of our country. This is a situation of violation of human rights, the rights of these Rwandan refugees.

Before this clause of cessation of refugee status, before this statement by Prime Minister Clement Mouamba, how did these Rwandan refugees live on Congolese soil?

They have been here in Congo for 20 years. There have been mixed marriages, some are farming, others are trading … They were already fully integrated in Congolese society. But unfortunately, today, they live the opposite of this integration that they had lived for nearly 20 years in Congolese society.

Has the status of these people changed in their daily lives? Are these people afraid to go out and not be arrested by the security services?

Exactly, they are arrested. So far, they only have their refugee cards running until December 31, 2017. And when the police arrest them, looking at who is already out of date, the policemen kidnap them, either arrested in police stations. They are asphyxiated. It’s hard to call this life a secret life. We call on the Congolese government to find a durable solution quickly.

Do you have any idea how many Rwandan refugees would be in Congolese prisons because they were arrested by the police because of the Prime Minister’s statement?

You know, there is no government information on the situation. The police act in their own way. The police are calling these Rwandan refugees and when they are arrested, at some point, if they have some money, they give. Sometimes they choose not to go to the prison and live in hiding. We are preparing a report of the reality on the ground, to describe in detail the situation.

Have there ever been voluntary returns of Rwandan refugees to their country of origin?

There were not many people; it’s at most twenty. We know the number of refugees who are not exempt, the 8,460. Moreover, those who have returned to Rwanda do not exceed twenty. Most of them remained in Congo because for them peace is not yet effective at the level of Rwanda.

In your press release, you ask yourself several questions about the reasons behind Prime Minister Clément Mouamba’s statement. What do you think would have motivated the Congolese prime minister?

The motivation is very simple. If you read our memorandum published in February 2017, in this memorandum, we showed what agreements the Congo had already signed with Rwanda, through their foreign affairs ministries. The Prime Minister is just applying these ten conventions. In one of these documents, it is said that when Rwandan refugees refuse to go home, the Congo has the obligation to arrest them and extradite them. This is well stated in the convention signed under the assistance of UNHCR, the United Nations High Council for Refugees. Has there been a thorough analysis to see how far more than 8,460 people can be extradited to their country? I do not know how they will proceed …

On October 2, 2015, a ministerial meeting on the Global Solutions Strategy for Rwandan Refugees took place in Geneva at UNHCR Headquarters. About voluntary repatriation, the Rwandan Government pledged on that day to “guarantee the safe and dignified return and reintegration of all refugees and take all necessary measures to that end”. Was this commitment not enough to convince refugees to return to Rwanda?

You know it’s a problem of the person. Every person has his rights. We have an obligation to respect the rights of each person. Only these people can tell us the reality. They are Rwandans, they lived in their country. Now that their country is developed, why do not they want to go back? That is what justifies events because in political law there is voluntary return, local integration and resettlement. But in Congo, the part of resettlement was obstructed, and voluntary return and local integration were kept. For us, we first look at the individual. What does the individual think of himself? Is he reassured? It’s not a question of what the rulers do. A good part of refugees does not want to leave because they do not have the security guarantee. We must analyse those people who have lived in Rwanda, who have lived through the war, who have fled their country and who are on Congolese territory. They have rights that UNHCR must respect, as well as Rwanda and Congo. Did they respect the rights of refugees? Now, if they are turned back, expelled, their rights are not respected. You know that the Rwandans who are in Congo have memoranda, which they sent to the head of state explaining their non-return. That’s it but their explanations were not considered.

The same meeting of 2 October 2015 also talks about local integration. The “commitment of the participants to redouble their efforts to facilitate the possibilities of local integration for those who wish to remain in the country of asylum”. What has been done in this way?

Local integration took place in 2006 in Congo. Because the Congo and Rwanda, in their conventions, it is said somewhere that Rwandan refugees in Congo-Brazza must withdraw the passports at the level of the chancery, at the embassy of Rwanda in the Congo. These people still consider themselves refugees. And the 1961 convention says that when a refugee agrees to take a document from his country such as a passport, that person totally loses his refugee status. This is an obstacle for Rwandan refugees. The Rwandan and Congolese governments have put in place this strategy for refugees to withdraw their passports to achieve local integration. But, dear journalist, the Rwandan refugees arrived in Brazzaville without any documents because they were in a situation of war. And when they arrived in Congo, they were granted a collective status. UNHCR has kept them for 20 years under this collective status. UNHCR could, after two years, examine case by case and determine who should be and who should not be refugees. UNHCR waited 20 years to ask these refugees to build files to have individual refugee status. This means that there has been a lack of documents everywhere in the refugee camp in our country.

Another commitment that day was the “need to prevent former refugees from finding themselves without legal status or at risk of becoming stateless and agree to take all possible measures, including the exploration of the acquisition of citizenship, to avoid such a situation “. Are there any progress towards the acquisition of Congolese citizenship for these Rwandan refugees?

We are putting in place a strategy because you know that people have spent 20 years in Congo, they have had children in this country. And these children are at university, in high schools, in colleges. These children live in the same camps with their parents. However, our national law states that at 18 you can have nationality. It is a possibility for us to see these children who cannot go to Rwanda but who can acquire nationality, which could arrange their parents. This is an approach that ADHUC is putting in place today.

What is the status of these children born of mixed marriages? I imagine they are torn between the possibility of staying in Congo with their Congolese parents or returning to Rwanda with Rwandan parents …

In principle, even Rwandan children, born to Rwandan parents on Congolese soil, can apply for Congolese citizenship at 18 years of age. That, there are not so many problems. Now, we call on the Congolese government to tap into wisdom and find a lasting solution. We told the United Nations to find a lasting solution. The durable solution is neither forced repatriation nor extradition. I believe that the Congolese government is seeking a solution and I hope that the durable solution will be found to respond to the lamentations, tears and worries of the refugees. I am tempted to say that a political solution is needed at this time.

When and how did these Rwandan refugees arrive in Congo-Brazzaville, more than 2,000 kilometers from their native Rwanda?

You know that the DRC is border with Congo, and the DRC borders Rwanda. After the Rwandan genocide, many refugees found themselves in the DRC. When the Kigali power pursued them into the DRC’s forests, they crossed this vast country. We recorded unaccompanied children, those who lost their parents on the way but there was African solidarity, Bantu solidarity and we brought them to Brazzaville. See! Even these children are considered as people who must go back to Rwanda. They were chased towards the DRC, from where they were chased again in the forests and they found themselves in Congo crossing the Congo river to meet in the northern departments, in Ikolela and Ikobo. Today, they are still pursued.

According to the AFP (Agence France Presse), before the deadline of December 31, only 104 Rwandan refugees were repatriated voluntarily in their country, eighteen have sought local integration and 802 have benefited from the exemption until in 2020. The remaining 8,460 are without status.

Merveille Kakule Saliboko is a peace reporter based in Butembo, North Kivu, in eastern DRC. In May 2016, he won the Peace Journalism Award in North Kivu, a prize set up by AJVPD Tupashe Amani in collaboration with MONUSCO. His award-winning article, “l’agriculture contre la guerre”, published in Afrique Agriculture in March 2016, speaks of displaced people fleeing the massacres taking place in the city and territory of Beni, North Kivu, and who, in waiting for the return of peace in their home environment, engage in agriculture in the city of Butembo. With Pax Christi International, Merveille’s ambition is to be the bard of peace.

Refugee Stories, Young Peace Journalists

Refugee Stories: The drama of a young Burundian refugee serving as a teacher in Mulongwe refugee camp

The following interview was done by Olivier Lungwe Fataki, a member of the Young Peace Journalists. It is the latest entry in the Young Peace Journalists project featuring the stories and voices of refugees. 

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Interviewee Identity

Name: Ndayishimiye Frédéric Etienne
Age: 25 years old
Sex: M
Marital status: Single, Father of a child
Status: Burundian refugee from Mulongwe Camp

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Summary

This story is about Ndayishimiye Frédéric, a young Burundian refugee who lives nowadays in the Mulongwe camp in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Thanks to his diploma obtained with difficulty in the country of refuge, he teaches to this day at a secondary school which educates Burundian and Congolese children in the locality of the camp. He is the only Burundian teacher at this school, serving as a link between Congolese and Burundian children who don’t have the same culture. Unfortunately, his profession does not guarantee him the dignity of an educator whose noble mission is to sacrifice himself in service for the children’s education.

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Age 25, Ndayishimiye Frédéric is the eldest son of a large family whose survival depended on him because their father died when he was very young. In January 2015, his family received regular night visits by gunmen who had managed to take away all the goats they bred at home.

These undesirable visits had taken a deadly turn during the socio-political unrest linked to the challenge of President Pierre Nkurunziza’s regime. Armed men, generally suspected to be young people serving the regime, were carrying out assassinations and kidnappings at night, targeting anyone who does not share the political ideology of the ruling party.

To flee and continue his studies in DR Congo before transferring to the Mulongwe refugee camp…

While troubles persisted, “the political and social climate of the area no longer promised a better future because I still needed to continue my studies but there was no way here … that is why I had to look elsewhere,” confides Ndayishimiye Frédéric. In his struggle for intellectual fulfillment and physical security, Frédéric Ndayishimiye saw fit to migrate to DR Congo, leaving behind his young siblings and his mother. Once in the country of asylum, he fortunately found a host family in Sange, South Kivu province, where he had started plowing the residents’ fields and getting paid for the job.

“The fruits of this craft made it easier for me to enroll in the sixth year of secondary school, a final degree, in the general pedagogy section in the Congolese education system,” explains Frédéric, who obtained on that occasion his “State diploma”, equivalent to a bachelor’s degree, allowing him to have access to the university.

With the support of a local non-governmental organisation (NGO) that promoted youth education through repayable loans, he was enrolled at the University in the Faculty of Peace Science, Conflict Management and Social Communication, but, according to him, “It was not easy at all because survival depended only on my own efforts. After the course, I had to manage how to eat, while in the meantime I also had to consider repaying the amount received on loan.” He finished this first year in these conditions.

Finally, Ndayishimiye Frédéric resolved to join his fellow Burundian citizens in the transit center to be transferred to the refugee camp. This is how he was admitted and transferred in November 2017 to the newly built Mulongwe refugee camp due to overcrowding of the Lusenda camp.

Until then, the Mulongwe camp was being set up, and everything was not yet organised. Some refugees did not have shelters yet, and others were waiting for enlistment to receive food. In the meantime, the need for education of the children pressed; the area has only one school institution including secondary school and primary school.

In service of the education of children in the camp and the locality of Mulongwe…

While many refugees cultivated and traded food inside the camp because they were allowed to practice the profession of their skills, Ndayishimiye Frédéric had preferred to serve as a teacher at the Kasaba II Institute, the only school in the area where he had applied.

A few weeks later, he was called back to join the teaching staff and was immediately granted the “English and Civic and Moral Education Courses” cause he had had his diploma in the Congolese educational system. Since January 2018, “I regularly practice the teaching profession at this school where I am the only Burundian in a body made up of about ten teachers,” explains Frédéric, who continues: “Every time I come to class, I have in front of me the Burundian children (refugees) and Congolese and also my colleague teachers with whom we cooperate and work in peace … I have never been personally attacked due to my identity.”

To explain the cohabitation at the school between Burundian refugee pupils and Congolese children, Ndayishimiye Frédéric recognises that not all students have the same mastery of French and Swahili, the two languages ​​used in school. This, in his view, handicaps the integration of refugee children who find it difficult to express themselves in a language other than “Kirundi”, the national language of Burundi. In their way of speaking, “Burundian children communicate with difficulty because of the tone of their mother tongue which makes it difficult for them to make heard the sound “l” which they pronounce “r”,” he explains stating that this way of speaking is really the object of laughter by Congolese children.

As an educator, Frédéric Ndayishimiye, who had first lived in the Congo before entering the camp, never stops calling Congolese children to tolerance because this linguistic interference can not immediately change because of the laughter, especially since it’s related to their mother tongue. At least he as a teacher, moreover, due to his Burundian nationality and his mastery of all the languages ​​used at school, knows how to approach all children and explain to them affectionately what it is to live together.

Difficult to live the honour and dignity expected…

Admittedly, “the status of teacher confers a certain esteem to its wearer, especially in school,” acknowledges Frédéric. However, it is sad to see that it is always difficult to find his account in this profession and live the honour and dignity expected. To explain himself, he confesses that he has not received a salary for four months because humanitarian organisations that are supposed to take charge of refugee children, the majority at the school, seem to be shirking their responsibility. This is what makes the teaching profession difficult. “We manage otherwise to live by other livelihoods … with all the risks of being confused as common mortals and then the respect suffers,” says a disappointed Frédéric Ndayishimiye.

* Photo credit: UN High Commission on Refugees, http://www.unhcr.org/thumb3/5acfcdd34.jpg
Refugee Stories, Young Peace Journalists

Refugee Stories: LJUBAV I ŽIVOT: Stories Of War, Kafana Love and Remembrance

The following interview was done by Alexandre Fonseca, a member of the Young Peace Journalists and an EVS Volunteer at Volunteers’ Centre of Vojvodina with the project “People BeyONd Borders” (Erasmus + Program).

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Summary:

Nina is a student of journalism, a active citizen and was a participant in the Youth Exchange “Get up – crossing borders” in Klösterbuch devoted to the current refugee situation in Europe, financed by OFAJ and organized by the Volunteers’ Centre of Vojvodina, Treibhaus and Le Petit Graine. Nina was always willing to contribute, share her opinion and also her story of being a baby refugee from Krajina (part of Croatia) in a very emotional Living Library related to the topic.

We met afterwards for coffee and čvarci in a hostel in the downtown of Novi Sad to catch up and hear more about her story. After an hour or so, her story become the story of the family and the story of a house, of Glina, of Yugoslavia and war. Nina suggested us to visit her in her home and talk to her mom, who lived through the journey and those years of ethnic conflict with full conscience. We shared a lovely Sunday afternoon in Bukovac, suburb of Novi Sad, under the first snows of January, sheltered by the warmth of the fireplace, cheese pita and the words of the matriarch of the family, Branka. We remembered the Youth Exchange, talked about the future, presented each other cultures and culinary, but most of all remembered and reminisced.

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First Chapter:

How war does not stop life (or love)

In this chapter, we visit a student dealing with increasing discrimination and tension before the explosion of conflict in the ex-Yugoslavia, faced with the need to go back home because of her nationality.

branka-bwBranka was a young and idealist student of Law and Literature in Zagreb, capital of Croatia, still part of Yugoslavia, a country that is no more. A country where people “were living together, very peacefully. We walked together, we would go out together, we got married between the two nationalities.” Her dream, which the war would break, was to become a lawyer to protect woman in trouble, something she knew she wanted to do since she was 19.

She was, back then, the youngest student in the faculty, a student with an open mind and an open heart, everything the growing nationalistic wave in the republics of Yugoslavia loathed. Despite being considered a good friend and witty, one word on her index (document of identification of students) was now a problem: Nationality – Serb. But at that moment, the choice to hide and write Yugoslav, as others Serbs did, was not an option, unwilling to lie about her origins:

“When I was student, in the index, on the subject ’nationality’ I put ’Serb’. That’s what I am. And I got problems. Lots of Serbs lied, and put Yugoslav. But they knew, if you wrote ‘nationality Yugoslav’, Yugoslav is not nationality, it is citizenship. I did not hide that.

In this case, I am from Glina and they asked ’Are you Serb?’, I said ‘Yes, I am’, when people asked where I came from. They openly ask where I am from, even if I did not do anything wrong.”

She had indeed done something “wrong”. She was Serb on a country that had, through the centuries, shared a history of rivalry and conflict with Serbia, quieted down by the cry of the old Marshal Tito: “brotherhood and unity”. A decade after his death, conflict exploded in 1991, as the dream country of before was shattered with brutality. Her national identity, as for many other citizens from all the republics of Yugoslavia, was now a problem, where before it did not matter.

“There were a lot of soldiers in Zagreb and I felt very unsafe there. I would hear: ‘Last night someone was killed’. And in that period, lots of families escaped from Zagreb to Serbia, Krajina or Bosnia.” She had no option, but to go back to Glina, her hometown, where a majority of Croatian Serbs lived. Law, Zagreb and a future as a Women’s Rights lawyer were no longer on the table. Survival was in order.

Branka was now living on the newly formed Republic of Serbian Krajina, an entity that pursued autonomy from the government of Croatia, which in its turn, was seeking independency from Yugoslavia. She was now citizen of a Republic which was not internationally recognized, stuck in an enclave surrounded by the opposing armies of Croats and Muslims, with documents from a country that had ceased to exist:

“We did not have valid documents, because the Republic of Serbia Krajina wasn’t accepted internationally. We were in a trap, surrounded by two sides, one side was Croatian, the other were the Muslim army.

And when a man from Krajina came to Belgrade, the police would arrest them and put them in the worst areas of war of Bosnia or Krajina. Women were allowed to go, but they took all the risks of travelling through Bosnia, where there was an ethnic war going on too.”

A united land was now divided by the lines of ethnic conflict. “One day, we were drinking together and partying and the other day, the war started”, as in the famous scene of “Pretty Village, Pretty Flame”. This status quo would last four years. It was war and you could die every day. But life (and love) go on.

“Four years is a long period, in that period you have to eat, like, love, lots of things. You cannot stop for four years and feel nothing and do nothing.”

On one night, after a car accident, Branka came to her dad’s kafana for a drink where she was to meet her husband to be Nino, an emergency car driver who witnessed “a lot of terrible things” during the war. Love happens amidst tragedy, as in joy. In two days they chose the names of their children. In three months, they would get married. A marriage celebrated cooking “without electricity and with the ingredients we had”. Food was scarce, it was war and you could die every day. How do you plan a future with the person you love?

How do you decide to have children? How do you “live”?

“It’s not easy to explain, because you love someone a lot and you are so conscious that you can lose him. I don’t know, that’s life. Ljubav i Život. Love and life.”

To be continued…

Disclaimer: This text does not attempt to take any sides in a war that involved brothers and sisters, people united under one flag, and although retelling the story of this civil war trough the perspective of Serbian refugees, it is not meant to isolate them from the wider victims of this conflict who are, in the words of Branka, “the people that were unprepared”.

Find this article and others by Alexandre Fonseca on BalkanSteps.

Refugee Stories, Young Peace Journalists

Refugee Stories: Firewood, a source of conflict between Burundian refugees and local residents

The following interview was done by Olivier Lungwe Fataki, a member of the Young Peace Journalists. This story is about the experiences of Nizeyimana Edouard, a Burundian refugee living in DR Congo. It is the latest entry in the Young Peace Journalists project featuring the stories and voices of refugees. 

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Interviewee Identity
Name: Nizeyimana Edouard
Age: 26 years old
Sex: M
Marital status: Married, Father of one child
Status: Burundian refugee from Camp Lusenda

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Summary:

Nizeyimana Edouard is part of the first convoy of Burundian refugees who settled in the Lusenda camp in 2015. The convoy’s settlement in this camp experienced disturbances which were, at first, notably related to their cohabitation of the area with local residents. At its roots, the issues were caused by the local inhabitants’ anger over the destructive effect the refugees’ practice of felling trees immoderately had on the environment and their fields. This problem found a peaceful solution through the mediation of UNHCR, its partners, and the local administrative authorities and through the use of “Ziganya”, small artificial embers stoves called “biomass briquette”, which are used instead of firewood.

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The socio-political situation in Burundi was intensely critical in 2015 when the President of the Republic, Pierre Nkurunziza, chose to run for the third term. This decision prompted all the political parties to join with civil society and the people to denounce what was described as a violation of the constitution and the Arusha Agreement. This situation has since escalated into unrelenting protests, targeted assassinations, and night abductions.

This is why Nizeyimana Edouard had to flee to DR Congo: “The young people of the ruling party, the CNDD-FDD, commonly called imbonerakuré, did not stand anyone from an opposition party or be neutral for those not interested in politics like me… many of my relatives have been victims.” In April 2015, he embarked with his family on a boat to a transit centre in Luvungi (DR Congo) where they were welcomed by the National Commission for Refugees (CNR) and then transferred to Lusenda Camp.

At first, a less troubled installation in the Lusenda camp

After Nizeyimana Edouard settled in Lusenda camp in 2015 as part of the first convoy of Burundian refugees, he was elected head of one of the villages. “As soon as we arrived,” says Edouard, “the UNHCR had already prepared tents for us and gave us food consisting of small weight, the beans, the corn flour, the rice and the oil, and also a very small quantity of firewood that was sometimes not enough to prepare food for a single day.” Refugees were formally prohibited from selling property received from UNHCR or other humanitarian partners operating in Lusenda camp.

Thus, everyone was trying their best to content themselves with the gifts they received from humanitarian organisations, especially the fact that “the environment was so strange to us that we did not collaborate with the residents for the entire first month of our installation.”

This way of life isolated the refugees from the rest of the community in the surrounding area, which was not without consequences; local residents tended to consider themselves discriminated against in that assistance was only provided to refugees.

Difficult cohabitation between Burundian refugees and Lusenda local residents

The donations the refugees received were not enough. Edouard admits, “Beyond what we received from the UNHCR, we went to surrounding forests to get firewood, some to heat their pots and others to sell, without imagining the danger that this could present.” Edouard explains that it was only afterwards that the residents started lamenting that “before our arrival they had beautiful hills, but they are now being denuded because of the woodcutting by the refugees.”

In 2016, a violent confrontation caused by the cutting of trees by the refugees arose, and a refugee died. Conflict expanded in other ways as well. “The natives had marched against the policy of the UNHCR that they considered discriminatory towards them in that they did not benefit from any humanitarian assistance, yet they need it even if they are not refugees,” adds Edouard with a smile.

Peaceful resolution of disputes

Solving this issue required the intervention of several actors including UNHCR, the local administrative authorities, and the National Refugee Commission (CNR). “We were invited to the common meetings to be aware of peaceful cohabitation,” informs Edouard. Both the local administrative authorities and the heads of the refugee villages in the Lusenda camp took part in these meetings, and they committed themselves, each one as far as they were concerned, to widely spread the message by repeating it to their subordinates.

Strategies were employed to bring the parties involved in the conflict closer together. “Beyond prohibiting us from going to cut the woods in forests, it was organised football games in common, frequenting the same market and the same churches according to one’s religion … and it was created a structure called ‘Local Dynamics for Peace’, in the framework of which we could sit with the residents and exchange about our mutual problems, and we were forced to plant at least one tree each one at home camp,” says Nizeyimana Edouard complacently.

Edouard says that in order to solve the problem at the source, “We recommended that the UNHCR provides us with sufficient firewood to no longer suffer from food preparation difficulties, but it has never happened.”

As an alternative, some humanitarian organisations came to make the refugees aware of improved stoves. “Many refugees have obtained furnaces made of mud surrounded by a round-shaped metal with a hole of air, and using artificial embers called biomass briquette, from the mixture of goat excrement, ash mixed with lubricant and palm crumbs”, explains Edouard.

In the Lusenda camp, this kind of stove is commonly called “Ziganya” and is used to very quickly cook any kind of food. The advent of this kitchen utensil has certainly overtaken the dangerous and environmentally destructive practice of cutting wood. “Although these stoves are now locally made by refugees, not everyone has the financial means to buy them, so some still prefer to buy embers from local residents instead of going in the bush to cut the woods, and others still wait for firewood to be provided by the UNHCR in sufficient quantity”, informs Edouard. Even so, he praises the peace found in these terms: “To this day, beyond that each of us keeps his natural identity, there is no more open conflict really between us and the local residents except that where there are people, there is a possibility of conflict.”

* Photo credit: WFP/Leonora Baumann, https://www.wfp.org/stories/market-day-refugee-camp-market-democratic-republic-congo
Refugee Stories, Young Peace Journalists

Refugee Stories: Adel Albaghdadi – (Re)claiming the labels

The following interview was done by Alexandre Fonseca, a member of the Young Peace Journalists. This story is about Adel Albaghdadi, a Syrian refugee living in The Netherlands. It is the latest entry in the Young Peace Journalists project featuring the stories and voices of refugees. 

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Refugees might have disappeared from our screens and news feed, but they are present and active in our society. This is another story of integration, special because it contradicts the myths and the labels put on most refugees that have crossed the Balkans to find a safe place in Europe. After talking with Razan about her journey and her work with the “We” organization, we wanted to know more about the activities and scope of this “young social initiative aiming to develop projects tackling difference in society, fight xenophobia, build bonds and promote social inclusion”. So we sat down, aided by modern technology, with Adel Albaghdadi, founder of the organization.

Adel told us that the organization was born of a desire to shift the burden of refugees, from being (usually) seen as passive recipients of aid and solidarity, to being themselves igniters of change in their hosting societies. As he recalls, “when I came to the Netherlands, I noticed that most initiatives were from the host society to the refugees, but not all of them were targeting and reaching their goals”. This story of self-empowerment and inversion of expectations, started with a video made by Adel showing his life in the refugee center and continued with short presentations in schools, universities and companies. Now the organization is a relevant part of the city.

One of its most striking features is the work with elderly people, a neglected segment of our societies. This initiative, aptly named “We are the elderly”, is based on the need to convey other cultures through music and entertainment to a population that is mostly isolated in elderly houses and apart from their families. Elderly are also, in Adel’s words, the segment of the Dutch population that is generally more “scared and afraid of the immigrants and of the refugees”. This is why, not to mention Adel’s passion and affection for the senior, these cultural soirées were born. The plan is to expand them and to present different cultures, other than his own Syrian culture.

The reaction of Dutch citizens, young and older, to the activities proposed by Adel and Razan is generally positive, despite the negative images of “new comers” portrayed in the media and public discourse, sadly prevalent and enduring. The most important thing to avoid this trap, Adel states, is the human touch, the one-on-one meeting, the moment where change and togetherness is allowed to happen:

“I remember one time, we danced with the elderly and a 102 years-old Dutch lady was on a wheel chair, but she was so energetic. I carried her from the front and she put her hands in my shoulders. And she was super joyful, it was such a nice experience. For me, those were really touching moments.”

The happiness, joyfulness and self-assurance of Adel is easy to spot, not only in our conversation, but in his Ted talk, and in a video captured by a Dutch television of an earnest and heartfelt conversation with an old lady, where both allow themselves to discover and be discovered. Was this charisma and will to live, to do and to create that got the attention of fellow Syrians and Eritreans living in the center, who got together, through Adel’s initiative, to clean the forest and cut a path for the pedestrians? Pedestrians who, in their turn, were happy and supportive of the initiative? This was one of the ways to start a dialogue with the locals and to occupy the people in the center. Is this why Adel titles himself “an igniter of change”?

Despite the humor and positive vibe that Adel gives out, the experience in a refugee center marked him. Adel’s warning for everyone to pay attention for refugees’ mental health and to offer viable alternatives to life in camps and afterwards is strong. After all, as he asks, what will happen to “people that are mostly living alone, without contact with their family and possibly facing traumas, due to persecution or war”? Mental health among refugees seems to be the least of priorities for public officials, preceded by broader concerns for employment and integration, but it surely is not without its consequences.

But what is remarkable in Adel is this willingness not to allow anyone, not even himself to be limited by any label. The words we give or that were given to us, the words we fill with meaning, are to be disputed. Why should society as a whole, Adel rightly inquires, judge and penalize people that did not choose to be part of a minority or suffer from a disease, blindness or handicap? Adel won’t let anyone define him or the labels that inhabit him. He does that by reversing the expectations, images and boxes that are deposited upon the new comers. And mostly, as he says, by “claiming his experience” and asking with a big exclamation point: “I am a refugee, what is wrong with that?!” Indeed Adel, what is wrong with that?!

Find this article and others by Alexandre Fonseca on BalkanSteps  – https://balkansteps.wordpress.com/2018/02/14/adel-albaghdadi-reclaiming-the-labels/

Refugee Stories, Young Peace Journalists

Refugee Stories: Deaths of friends leads Iraqi to United States

The following interview was done by Zachary Wierschem, a member of the Young Peace Journalists. This story is about Yasser, an Iraqi refugee living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. It is the latest entry in the Young Peace Journalists project featuring the stories and voices of refugees.

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I sat down at a local coffee shop in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA with an Iraqi refugee named Yasser.  Yasser is a young man from Baghdad, in his mid-twenties and in the United States with his mother, father, two younger sisters, and younger brother. I was connected with Yasser through a contact that I had made at Marquette University who had previously worked with refugees in Greece and who currently does work for refugees in the local Milwaukee community. With an air of preparedness to share his experience, Yasser began to unravel his story and experience as a refugee beginning in Baghdad, Iraq and continuing to Milwaukee.

For important context on Yasser’s story, the humanitarian crisis and refugee situation concerning Iraq has been going on for about 30 years, beginning with the Iran-Iraq War (The First Gulf-War) and continuing even to today with the presence of ISIS through frequent terrorist attacks often involving car bombs killing people. Yasser came to the United States in 2015, during the Iraqi insurgency and civil war that began in 2011 which has caused over 4.4 million Iraqis to be internally displaced within Iraq and 264,100 Iraqis as refugees abroad in 2015. As a result of the conflict, many of the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) stay in camps with limited resources and difficult living conditions and refugees often face issues of finding asylum in safe countries and meeting their basic necessities in refugee camps.

When I first sat down with Yasser, he expressed a genuine openness and excitement to share his story as a refugee with me. He came to the United States in 2015 when he was about 26 years old. Two years before coming to the United States, his father’s friend from work asked if he would like to go to the United States with him. Initially, Yasser’s father said yes to the offer, but Yasser declined when his father asked if he would like to go too. He declined because he had a stable job in Iraq, and there were no car bombs or shootings that affected him. His family stayed in Iraq for another two years.

Back in Baghdad, Yasser worked with his brother and had lots of cousins and friends that he could depend on and enjoy life with. He spoke highly of his friends, saying that everyday they would call him asking, “Yasser, go out?” Additionally, he recounted that his friends would come to his home everyday to see him and he would often go to their homes and do the same. Yasser shared that, in the United States, he thinks about his Iraqi friends because 19 of them have died. When I asked if he ever witnessed any of their deaths, he replied with a firm, “Yes. Every week. Every month, friends died.” Describing the scene in Baghdad, he said, “My country, area, and neighborhood just like car bombs in the street. It hurt inside.”

He said that a car bomb went off near him when he was in Baghdad and reflected, “And I wish I had died.” His face was solemn as he said, “I think, ‘I want die,’ and I cut my hand. Because why did my 19 friends die?” He still struggles with the thought of his friends dying while he is living his life in the United States. “The people from Church come to my home because I cut my hand.”

A Protestant church in Milwaukee cared for him and his family when they came to the United States and he said that they pray for him whenever he has a problem. Even though Yasser and his family are Muslim, they go to a Protestant church in the Milwaukee area which he described as having an atmosphere of welcome and hospitality for him and his family. The church community has been a good foundation for both him and his family with emotional struggles, offering him and his family support in any way that they can.

Two years after Yasser declined to go to the United States and after many of his friends had died because of car bombs, his girlfriend was killed. Yasser shared, “My girlfriend shared my heart, and I wanted to marry her.” He said that his girlfriend’s mother and father trusted him and gave him their blessing to marry her. “Okay Yasser, I trust you. You good guy.” Taking this moment with cultural context, Yasser shared with me that men can be killed for not taking relationships with women seriously because of the protective nature of their fathers and their brothers. “I ask him, ‘You with her for what? Just time? Or play? Or like wife? What you like with her?,” and if the conversation does not end well, he added, “I fight him, I’ll kill him.” It was a huge honor for Yasser to obtain a blessing to marry his girlfriend from her parents.

The death of Yasser’s girlfriend was the last straw for him, and his mother, father, two sisters and brother migrated to the United States in 2015. When asked if it was easy to come to the United States, Yasser replied, “Yeah, very easy.” It was easy for his family because his father worked for the U.S. Embassy in Iraq and they had passports and visas.

Yasser currently has one brother and one sister still in Baghdad. He said that his brother came with his family to the United States, but then his brother went back because he was crying out of homesickness and had a girlfriend back in Iraq. After 2-3 months, Yasser’s brother made the decision to travel back and eventually married his girlfriend, so Yasser’s family is split between the United States and Iraq.

Yasser and his family made the decision to come to Milwaukee because his father’s friend who had moved to the United States had come to Milwaukee and said that, “It was a nice city and Wisconsin is nice.” Then, Yasser’s father saw Milwaukee, found it to be a good city to settle in, and ultimately decided to resettle there. I then asked Yasser if coming to the United States was a good decision for him, which he responded, “Yeah, it’s good. I don’t care because why I have a lot of friends who died?”

I asked what Yasser misses most. “I miss everything. I miss my brother, I miss my sister, my cousins. I have many, many cousins. Big, big family. My friends.” Essentially, Yasser said that he misses the old life he lived back home. Taking these reflections to mind, he said that Baghdad would not be the same if he went back, and that we would never move back. “No, no. Because what would I have?” He said that if he goes back, he would see his sister and his brother which would bring him joy, but the life that he lived in Iraq has died. Yasser does not want to go to a coffee shop with his friends and see the places where his friends are no longer, referencing the 19 friends who had died.

When asked if there was anything that he would bring from the Iraqi culture to American culture he said, “I wish to teach people in the U.S. that my country is good. That there is no worry.”

Yasser said that he did not expect so many trees and streets in the United States. Additionally, he was surprised about the cold in the Midwestern United States, though he said that he enjoys the cold. He shared that his parents want to stay here and that they do not miss Iraq too much. Thinking about the future, Yasser said that when his younger siblings finish school and get jobs, he would like to buy a house and stay in the United States.

Yasser’s story is one thread in the fabric of the refugee experience which is often filled with tragedy, death, and persecution. Yasser’s affinity for his friends and family shines through his story as the foundations from which he has built his new life upon in the United States. He was also unafraid to share his harsh realities with me, and his authentic vulnerability is an inspiring testimony to his perseverance and strength. Although Yasser continues to struggle with the death of his friends in Iraq, his courage to keep moving forward and think about living in the United States is a shining example which anyone can take to heart and implement in their own lives.

Zachary Wierschem is a student in Innovation & Entrepreneurship at Marquette University in the United States.