Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Dzaleka Refugee Camp

I’ve been putting off writing about this and it’s because I still feel like I’m reeling from it emotionally. Recalling the experience is still unsettling and, though the emotional effects will fade with time, I don’t think the memories ever will.

Two friends of mine are working for the UN in Malawi this summer and were able to arrange a visit for myself and a few other EWB volunteers to a refugee camp.I suppose I didn’t know what to expect. Most of my expectations were formed from the movie “Blood Diamond” and, when it comes to realities of Africa, I’ve found that Hollywood and the media can be of limited accuracy.

The Dzaleka refugee camp, operated by the UN High Commission for Refugees, is different. It is the only camp in Malawi but the permanence of it is staggering. I was surprised at first by the absence of fences that I assumed would be surrounding the camp. Perched on a now deforested hilltop far from any other settlements, fence or no fence, most people here won’t be leaving anytime soon.

It was originally established in response conflict in Mozambique in the 1980s and has now existed for close to 20 years. With Mozambique now at peace and the refugees repatriated, the camp continues to harbor people fleeing various conflicts in Southern and Eastern Africa, mostly from the D.R. Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Ethiopia, and Somalia.

Perhaps the term camp is misleading. For me, the word summons images of tents and other temporary shelters yet many of the structures are very permanent. Of the approximately 10,000 people living here many have already spent many years at Dzaleka and have few prospects for the future.

Refugees have three options: they can stay in the camp; they can return to their home country; or they can try to resettle in a third country. Cases successful with the last option are exceedingly rare and, since many either cannot or are unwilling to return home, most sit and wait.

And who can blame them? Here, food stipends from the UN ensure that people can get by and a primary school funded by UNICEF offers primary school for children. There is also a small high school and students who excel here can apply for WOSK scholarships to different countries but their numbers are very few.

I think it was the stories of people that really got to me. Of the thousands at Dzaleka, I only heard the stories of a few yet each one had its own unique horrors. I met a woman from Rwanda whose entire family had been killed. A man from the DRC had a similar story. Formerly the son of a Chief, his family had been shot and his village destroyed. Somehow, he escaped into the jungle but was eventually recaptured. He spent 10 months in prison, became ill, and eventually escaped from the prison hospital and fled to Malawi. He has now been at the camp for 6 years and has mixed feelings about returning home. Though the DRC is his origin, with his family dead, there is not much of a home for him to return to. So he waits.

I feel a little differently about the experience now. A friend of mine who is working for the UN brought up a good point. If I were to burst into tears after hearing someone’s story, what are they supposed to do? Comfort me?

I’m glad that I experienced it, difficult thought it was. I think my biggest realization was that refugees exist every day of the year, long after a crisis “ends.” I was raised in a very different reality where I did not experience such hardship and, even if I cannot truly understand the plight of the people I met, I can know that it exists. There are people who have a more difficult life than I, those who suffer, and even if I choose to look away, that doesn’t mean that their realities do not exist.


joseremmy said...

I am one of the survivals of the Dzaleka Refugee camp.I lived there for 11 years,lost my only parent-mum,and lastly by the mercy of God I was sponsored by WUSC (WOSC) to Canada,it only takes about 15 students out of 200 young students who apply yearly,and I know all these friends just wondering around and no hope of future,just roaming around the camp.
I pray that one day,one day God will remember all of my sisters,brothers,mothers,fathers and grand-parents in the camp take them out of there for a better future!!!

bahati said...

i am one of the survivals of the Dzaleka Refugee camp, i thinks God for every things he has done to me. because now i am in Canada, i lived there for almost 12 years i was with my parents. by the mercy of Allah i was sponsored by Immigrant and Citizenship Canada with my family member, sisters and brothers. it only about 12 families out of all people in the camp and bout 8000,000 people who live in the is not easy in the refugee camp. all it needed to live in the refugee camp is ambition, perseverance and determination, because success come in many ways. i know all my friends wondering around and no hope of future, one day God will remember them and have a better life. life is short on the planet, pray is priority to get success.

Matt said...

Hi, I read your account with great interest as I am currently writing a masters thesis on the issue of human rights violations in refugee camps. I was looking at Malawi and its Dzaleka camp and may want to visit it for research. Did you find that people's freedom of movement was restricted? were they actually confined in the camp? were people completely dependent on aid for food and other basic needs?
I would love to hear more from you.

Thanks in advance,

Michael Pietrzak said...

Hi Duncan,

I don't know if we ever crossed paths but I too volunteered in Malawi for a time in 2008 with my partner Lesley. A lot of the EWB crew hung out at Mabuya Camp in Lilongwe. I'm reading your blog with great interest! Nice to hear about another perspective. If you are interested in my experience you can check it out here:

julienne byaduniya said...

hi my name is julienne byaduniya im 12. I lived in that camp for more than 2yrs. I lived with my mum, two brothers and my lovely uncle.thank god that i left that horrible camp but deep down inside im not happy because the UN separetede away from my uncle.Now im having the time of my life eating whatever i want but my uncle is suffering the worse.

julienne byaduniya said...

I used to live there too.I lived there with my favorite uncle. We live there for more than 4 yrs. But i still dont underdtand the reason why the UM would do such a thing as to separate me from my beaitiful uncle for no reason. He is suffering the worset. Hes facing the worse nightmare

Macattack said...

I am just back from a stint in Dzaleka. I was there over the 2012 Christmas period. My volunteering included performance arts course with a few guys in the JRS college program. I'm professional Clown! :o) There are many benefits to the art of clowning not least having a laugh.But that's another issue. I find your report accurate so far as "we can't turn away" from their reality. There doesn't seem to be any drive from the powers that be to make significant change or improvement to services in the camp. Odd considering the stature of the UN. I have been to refugee camps in Haiti and noticed that in a Concern worldwide funded camp basic services where met to a high standard. I'd live there it was that well maintained. I ponder on why this standard cant be met by the UNHCR? Running water for example or sanitation. The most marginalised in Malawi seem to bare the brunt of systemic corruption, something that needs to addressed by us all here in the West before real change can come about.