Visiting the Nakivale Refugee Camp

Are refugees like starfish, washed upon the shore?

Are refugees like starfish, washed upon the shore?

By George Makinto

An early 4 am departure from Bombo, Uganda guarantees a smooth ride through the capital city, Kampala (only 40 minutes for what would usually take 2 hours in heavy daytime traffic). This fresh morning reminds us of the scripture we studied yesterday during our daily evening devotional: from Proverbs 4:18, “The path of righteousness is like the break of dawn, shining ever brighter until the light of day.” 

We are heading to Nakivale, the biggest refugee camp in Uganda, with thousands of refugees from all surrounding nations including Congo, Burundi, Sudan, Rwanda and others. This visit will not only give us additional information about what we already know to be a desperate and desolate place of waiting and wasting of time, but we will experience the plight of refugees personally by meeting Mukarabe’s niece, S., who recently fled Burundi with her husband-to-be. Traveling with us are S.’s father and her brother, himself a refugee at JHR. They haven’t seen her for more than a year.

Saturated green vegetation, grassland with cows and goats, banana groves, huge brown towers plastered with mud covering, heaps of bricks, villages waking up to a busy morning life of selling vegetables and carrying water, children walking often barefoot in colorful school uniforms, and daredevil bus drivers overtaking trucks on dangerous curves; all of this activity accompanies us on our 260-mile journey to Nakivale. 

Through the mediation of a friend we have a meeting with the District Chief of Isingiro in which Nakivale is located. This is part of our efforts to establish relationships with officials in the districts in which AMAHORO INTERNATIONAL will be active in our ministry to refugees. We find favor and friendship; Mukarabe’s ability to connect through her inspired wisdom, knowledge of African realities and Burundian cultural background proves invaluable.

The 15-mile rumpled dirt road to the refugee camp is a reminder that these camps are placed on land no one else wants: remote areas of scarce vegetation and poor soil quality. Nakivale is run by the UNHCR and assisted by NGOs like Samaritan’s Purse, who helps with food distribution. Through various testimonies we learn that every arriving refugee has to register and is then allotted a parcel of land, a machete, shovel, hoe, and a plastic tarp. They are then responsible to provide for their own shelter and for any food beyond the monthly minimal rations of dried corn, dried beans, and porridge. Corruption is rampant, and bribes to the office of registration are necessary to prevent prolonged waits in the processing of papers and documents which should be free and guaranteed.

We meet a Congolese leader of an association that reaches out to newly arriving refugees and helps them integrate into their new reality. Education is a big challenge as the Ugandan system for primary and secondary education proves insufficient to cater to the needs of an often French-speaking camp population. In addition, the schools' physical locations and entry requirements make them impractical; in despair, refugees feel forced to give up on obtaining a formal education for themselves and their children.

Many lose hope in the camp, languishing for 20 to 30 years, seeing their hopes of a return to their countries dashed between the worsening situations of their home countries and the incapacity of the UNHCR system to cater to the true needs of people seeking dignity and purpose, instead of just the bare minimum for survival.

The family reunion is emotional and joyful. Not only do we meet S., but suddenly F. and N. appear, both relatives and friends from Mukarabe’s large family network. We eat a very tasty meal in S.’s hut that her husband built with his bare hands out of the dirt on which we stand; the UN plastic tarp still covering the structure which is threatened by wind and rain.  Work to feed a family is hard to come by in the camp, nevertheless solidarity is strong, people help each other in their plights of survival. Refugees create businesses, raise chicken and ducks, open restaurants and churches. We even see “Hotel” signs over simple doors. The camp becomes a town, a trading center, but with little hope of leaving to a new host country or returning home.
We eat, we pray, we laugh, we listen to stories: heartbreaking stories of persecution, violence, rape, leaving behind loved ones, and unfulfilled dreams. 

Everyone has a dream, but in this unequal world only a few have the hope to fulfill their dreams. And in spite of all this misery, there is hope. The Burundians are called the joyful refugees in this camp. Asked why the smiles have not left them, they answer: “It is because of God’s grace, mercy and love.” Their faith is contagious.

We say farewell. It is hard to leave these loved ones behind, as well as the other nearly 30,000 Burundian refugees at Nakivale. Clusters of barefooted children wave good-bye, chatting in a mix of French, English and local languages, often not having mastered either one fully. This is among the challenges our Congolese friend’s association is fighting: cultural up-rootedness (i.e.., rootlessness) and estrangement from one’s own language and traditions. If and when these children ever return to their home country, how will they be able to re-assimilate if through their refugee experience they have lost their language and culture?

We drive home through the night, digesting our visit to the Nakivale refugee camp, a world so foreign and remote from ours. Is there hope for refugees in this world, where the global refugee crisis is rapidly overshadowing many other problems, producing violence, death and political extremism?

AMAHORO INTERNATIONAL is like the boy who, walking the beach with his grandfather after a storm, contemplates the shore littered with stranded starfish. The boy throws one starfish back into the ocean. The grandfather shakes his head: "This is hopeless, how can you help all those starfish? What difference does it make?" The boy answers: “Just made a difference for THIS ONE!” As we drive home, we can either succumb to the despair of not being able to help the gigantic number of refugees in the world languishing in refugee camps, or can rejoice for the few God has put in our path, to whom we can offer a better life.