By Mukarabe Makinto
The Nakivale Refugee Camp is located in a remote area in the Mbarara region of Uganda.
In August 2015, I had the amazing privilege of visiting this camp, which, I was told, was once the largest refugee camp in the world, not only by headcount but also by diversity (e.g., origin, age group, gender). By the time we were in Nakivale, the population of Burundian refugees was estimated at 12,000 people.
This area is very remote from normal life happenings. I was informed by the person who took me there that the road which leads to Nakivale is known as "The Road to Nowhere." And this is because beyond Nakivale, there is nothing else. When I stood outside of the few administrative building, I saw an old man who seemed to be in his 90s. He was standing by the window attempting to talk to the camp administrators in charge of registering refugees, a step that would eventually land me an identity. Next to him was a lady holding a newborn baby. As I stood there wondering what kind of future awaits the old and the young in this desolate place, a group of young guys came rushing through, pushing a friend in a wheelchair. At this point, I lost control and tears started to run down my face. I went to hide my face in our vehicle. The driver, a young Ugandan friend who drove us there was inside. He saw me crying and tears started to form in His eyes as well. He had never been to such a place. The misery, the despair and the senselessness of the whole situation were overwhelming. We immediately prayed for the people in the camp; and we prayed for the peace of Uganda.
I had accompanied young men and ladies who had recently fled the violence in Burundi, the majority of whom were my own relatives. They were going through the process of getting their identities as Ugandan refugees. In a day, they were receiving papers which could easily take 3 to 5 years to secure. Standing in that dusty compound of Nakivale, waiting for the paperwork to come through, and with no place to go, I found my mind going back to the old man, to the crippled young man and to the mother and her newborn baby. How long had they been there? What life does this young man have to offer to his family? What future awaits him? What stories will the mother tell her child? I was gripped with a sea of emotions and feelings of guilt mixed with relief. I felt guilty because I came in by recommendations from higher authorities, and the administration had to serve my people while those who were already in line had to wait another day, another month, or maybe another year? I felt helpless and remorseful that there was nothing I could do for them at the moment. I was grateful and relieved because the people who were with me would never spend a night in this place. They were riding back with me to a place filled with life; in an environment where they would be safe and cared for. In a community where they are known by their names, as people, and not as a number. Some years before, I could have been a number in a refugee camp, but God provided me with a better plan, a future with purpose for me and of hope for others.
The majority of these had been part of the constituency served and cared for through Amahoro International (AMI), our faith-based organization in Burundi. Until that time in May of 2015 when the government of Burundi turned against its own people because they spoke up peacefully what many consider an unconstitutional 3rd term sought by the outgoing president Nkurunziza, these stateless young people lived in group homes established by AMI to keep the orphans together in their communities as an alternative to traditional orphanages. Like in refugee camps, children lose their personhood to become no-name numbers, usually separated from their siblings. AMI had given them another way, a pathway to a meaningful life where they became active members of their communities, caring for other orphans and building the nation whose turmoil sentenced them to a meaningless life in internment camps such as Nakivale. AMI had sent me to Uganda to meet them where they were and to find another way forward for them.
One of these people, my nephew had been shot at is still hoping for a surgery that would salvage his leg. I had traveled to Uganda to meet with a wonderful family who has sacrificed all and put their normal life on hold to host my nephews and nieces and others who traveled with them.
I had traveled to Uganda to explore other ways to counter a Nakivale situation; a better way where these refugees could be integrated in a community where they could continue to live a productive life; a place where they can influence and undergo positive change for themselves and the communities around them. Most of these refugees have been members of Rugaba's Children, a group home orphans setting which we started under Amahoro International in Burundi. We worked with local churches and community leaders to establish a place for orphans, most of whom had lost their parents due to AIDS-related complications. The motivation behind Rugaba's Children was to offer a safe and nurturing space where orphaned siblings could stay together and not be split up to relatives or put in institutions where their lives would be characterized by victim and not victory; we wanted them to have a normal—well, sort of normal—life where they could contribute to the betterment of lives around them. There were tons of challenges through this model but we also saw victories and transformation on the individual level, the local level as well as across Burundi. From this group of orphans, came other child-related organizations led by members of The Rugaba's Children; they became avid advocates, social workers; leaders and continue to be at the forefront of social economic changes in local communities and throughout the country. We are grateful for friends near and far who walked this road with us from the creation of Amahoro International in 2000 in New York where we lived prior to moving to California in 2003-2004.
With this mindset, we embarked on this journey with this group of refugees who had just moved from Burundi to Uganda.
My two weeks in Uganda was packed with traveling to places I would have never chosen to be. I have been in Nakivale and I am grateful that my mission for this particular group was successful beyond my wildest imagination. We were able to secure their legal status quickly and managed to keep them together; first under the care of our loving and nurturing family friend; and now very soon moving them in a home which Amahoro International is building, on land that was acquired with the collaboration and the leadership of our friends in Bombo, Uganda: the Joyful House Of Refuge (JHR).
JHR is built in the midst of a diverse community where people speak different languages and eat different foods; where people have come from different countries and they mix with native populations. JHR is being built with a vision to expand and become a Life Center where young people like these kids in Nakivale could come and experience life as they had experienced before Nakivale.
Local communities are, from what I have seen, very warm and non-exclusive and as such have a lot to offer as well as to gain from a rich environment of people of diverse backgrounds doing life together.
When I was in Nakivale Camp, on that rainy day, I didn't have an opportunity to experience all that the camp is all about. All I saw was a mass of people lining up to tell their story in the hope that they could perhaps receive some legal papers for whatever purposes they felt that a document like this could serve. Do they need a legal document to receive their daily ration; or is the paper a window for escape? Escaping to where? As I successfully carried out my mission, as far as the legality issues are concerned, and the fact that the group in question is not in Nakivale; many issues and problems remain unsolved. One of the pressing need is the education. Most of the recent refugees are young people who were still in schools at all level. Now they are in an English-speaking environment, and their French, the second language of Burundi, is not at all popular here. So how do they continue their education? Is the host country able to provide the necessary pathway to the next phase of their lives?
We continue to wrestle with these challenges even as we move forward with JHR.