Fighting to Rebuild His Life
One Refugee’s Story of War, Loss, and Personal Triumph
"Msitoke inje, msitoke inje tumevamiwa," soldiers were yelling in Swahili, instructing the people of Kalemie in the Southeastern Democratic Republic of Congo not to leave their homes. "Don't come out! Don't come out! We're being attacked by Banyamulenge," continued their warnings, which were soon drowned by the sound of machine guns, heavy artillery, and explosives.
"First you heard a sound like a man blowing a whistle. Fiiiiiiiiuuuuh! When the bomb fell, it let out a BOOOM!," explained Jean Paul*, 26, who was at home with his family when the fighting broke out between the Banyamulenge rebel army and government forces. He remained inside with his parents and six siblings, hiding under beds for two days. "Everything inside my body was shaking," recalls Jean Paul, who was 15 years old at the time. "I felt like my heart was going to jump out. It was terrible."
The sounds of explosions and gunshots that spread through Kalemie on this otherwise quiet summer day in 1998 marked the beginning of another civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
When the fighting subsided on day three of the offensive, Jean Paul's father went outside to look for food, his wife and children having had nothing to eat in two days. He never came back. The family learned that the rebels mistook him for a government soldier and killed him. They also found out that several other relatives didn’t make it through the attacks, which took hundreds of innocent lives.
A week later, Jean Paul's mother and her seven children joined a large group of people from their town and set out on foot for Mtoa, a village from where they could take a boat across Lake Tanganyika to Tanzania and escape the fighting.
Things took a turn for the worse when word got out that rebels had occupied the main route to Mtoa, less than 19 miles from Kalemie, and were kidnapping and forcefully recruiting boys and young men into the army. Fearing for their lives, the Mtoa-bound crowds took out-of-the-way side roads, hid from rebels for hours at a time, slept in the forest, and had no choice but to drink contaminated water to survive. The images of this dreadful journey haunt Jean Paul to this day: "I saw cadavers and injured soldiers along the way. It was awful!"
After three days of walking and sleep-deprivation, the luggage on their heads getting heavier by the minute, Jean Paul and his family finally reached their destination. They caught the next available boat, squeezed like sardines with hundreds of others fleeing the fighting, and embarked on a 24-hour sail across the lake. Exhausted and hungry, these refugees arrived in Kingoma, Tanzania, where they rode a UNHCR truck for another 12 hours to Nyarugusu refugee camp.
"I could not believe my eyes," Jean Paul recalled his first impression of the camp. "I saw people living under trees and in muddy houses." Little did he know that the enormous, isolated camp--some 93 miles from the nearest town--would be his home for the next nine years.
Life in a Refugee Camp
Like the rest of the refugees at Nyarugusu, Jean Paul survived on meager food rations, lived without electricity, and was not allowed to leave the camp without a permit. The "village" where he and his family would build their own mud house looked as hopeless as the sound of its name: F1 Class 2 Plot 11.
Nyarugusu refugee camp consists of about 32 such villages arranged alphabetically. Every Monday, refugees receive their food rations for the week. Not allowed to work in Tanzania, many resort to selling some of their share of cooking oil and maize to Tanzanian traders to earn extra cash to pay for, say, a milling machine or other simple necessities. In order to make their rations last through the week they would have to subsist on one meal a day--a common practice among refugees dubbed "going unique."
Refugee children can attend makeshift elementary schools in the camp, but there is no secondary school on the premises. Adults who speak basic English or have an education often set up ad hoc secondary school classes, which refugee youngsters can attend, if they have the means. "I used to pay $.10 as school fees, but it was very difficult to get this money because I had no job," said Jean Paul, who paid for classes with the money he made from selling his food rations.
The Tanzania Red Cross National Society oversees the camp's minimal healthcare, which is free for the refugees, but not very good, according to Jean Paul. "Tanzanians are given first priority to get treatment and then refugees follow," he said, adding that "only one type of medicine is prescribed by doctors.
A Refugee Pursuing His Dream
The moment he arrived in the camp, Jean Paul knew that the only way he would have a chance at success is by continuing his education. In pursuit of his dream of becoming a public health researcher, he took refugee-taught science and English classes at the camp, won a scholarship from a German organization, and enrolled at the University of Dar es Salaam. While at the university Jean Paul met Pierre, a Congolese refugee from Lugufu camp, and together they founded the Center for Youth Development and Adult Education (CELA). Jean Paul eventually became a teacher at CELA, headquartered in Lugufu. "I was going to school in the morning and to CELA in the afternoon," he said. "Saturdays and Sundays were church days."
Armed with a university diploma, Jean Paul landed a job as a community health worker at the Urban Malaria Control Program in Dar es Salaam. He isn't legally allowed to work because he is a refugee, but he had to find a way to make a living and provide for his family still in the camp. "I was determined to start my own life and integrate into the community so I can support my family and other people who are suffering in the camp."
He now lives in Dar es Salaam in a house he shares with a fellow refugee. With his earnings barely enough to support his family and cover his $180 a month rent, Jean Paul had to put his plans to earn a master's degree in public health and start a refugee camp health project through CELA on hold for now. He goes back to Nyarugusu about once a year to visit his family. While most of his siblings remain at the camp, a few managed to leave. His younger brother is attending college in Lubumbashi, DRC, with the help of an American who helped collect money for his tuition. One of Jean Paul's sisters married a Tanzanian man and also lives outside of the camp, while another awaits resettlement in Australia or the Netherlands.
Despite his hopes for a promising future for him and his family, Jean Paul is still haunted by memories of life as a refugee. "Here in Tanzania the word refugee is like an insult," he said. "Some Tanzanians called us monkeys, thieves, and troublesome people.” He remembers one morning in particular when, on his way to school, he crossed paths with a Tanzanian woman. "I greeted her 'Good morning madam.' She replied 'Good morning,' after which she asked me, 'You troublemaker, where are you going?'" recalled Jean Paul. "I could not even respond. It hurt to be called a troublemaker just because of my status as a refugee."
Prejudice towards refugees was present even at the university in Dar es Salaam. His fellow students poked fun at him because of his imperfect English and French. Even university staff discriminated against him simply because of his background. While demonstrating how to use a centrifuge, a lab technician asked Jean Paul where he was from. As soon as he heard him say 'Congo,' the technician snapped, 'You are a fighter. What are you doing here? You do not deserve to be here.' Deeply hurt by the derogatory remark, Jean Paul wasn't able to fall asleep that night, the painful words playing over and over in his head.
In spite of all the challenges--or perhaps because of them--Jean Paul remains optimistic and eager to change the world's perception and treatment of refugees. "Refugees are good people and they can do better, given the opportunity,” he said. "To be called a refugee takes a big heart."
Photos (from top to bottom): Jean Paul in a leadership training class at Nyarugusu refugee camp in Tanzania; Jean Paul's mother and two younger brothers at Nyarugusu camp in Tanzania; Jean Paul delivering water buckets to refugees at Lugufu camp in Tanzania; at work in a molecular lab in Mikocheni, Dar es Salaam.
*Names have been changed to protect other family members in the DRC and Tanzania.