As a member of the Association for Refugee Service Professionals (ARSP), the Executive Director of North Carolina African Services Coalition (NCASC), Million Mekonnen, traveled to Rwanda in May 2014 with a group of refugee resettlement professionals. The ARSP, in cooperation with the Center for New North Carolinians of the University of North Carolina, sponsored the trip to Rwanda to visit Congolese refugee camps. This experience allowed refugee resettlement professionals to explore the complexities involved in assisting Congolese refugees, particularly in the context of Rwanda as a country of first asylum. Million Mekonnen shares his experience in this interview with ECDC staff.
Tell us about your experience in Rwanda.
I visited two refugee camps. The two camps, Gihembe and Kiziba, represent holding camps that are located in two distinct geographic regions. They are managed by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Gihembe is located in the Northern Province of Rwanda and was established in 1997 to house refugees who survived the Mudende camp massacre that year. It currently has approximately 14,500 Congolese refugees. Kiziba, located in the Western Province, was established in 1996, and has a Congolese population of approximately 16,500.
During my time in Rwanda, I learned about the amazing work that UNHCR and other non-governmental organizations are doing for refugees in Rwanda. The refugees in the camps I visited are predominately Congolese and resettlement is one of the only durable solutions for this group of people. Rwanda is a very small country located in central east Africa. It is slightly smaller than the state of Maryland, but it has a population of close to 12.5 million.
How did you find the services provided to refugees in Rwandan refugee camps?
The two camps that I visited had developed several specific work programs (i.e., mushroom, vegetable, and chicken farms, craft and wood carving, etc.) that generated produce and/or revenue for the camps. These programs also help refugees to develop transferable job skills.
The World Food Program (WFP) initiated a pilot cash and voucher program in Gihembe Refugee Camp. Historically, refugees received food rations distributed by WFP each month. Beginning in January 2014, a pilot program utilizing a cash and voucher system was initiated to replace the general food distribution model. Through this program, refugees receive a monthly allowance through their mobile phones (mVisa) and can purchase food at the local market. Refugees now have the autonomy to decide what food to purchase for their families, and how often it will be purchased. Not only does the cash and voucher program enable refugees to diversify their diets, it is a means of integrating refugees within the local markets in nearby communities.
Through Rwanda’s Office of Refugee Affairs and Department of Education, primary and secondary school education is facilitated by the host country. Previously, refugee children attended schools run specifically for refugees, but now the government is mainstreaming refugee children into Rwanda’s national system. The average class size is 50-55 children. Education remains a top priority for UNHCR staff, partner agencies, and the Rwandan government. Discussions continue between UNHCR and the Rwandan school system to continue integration of refugee children into the national system. Plans are also being discussed to expand the school system within the camps to include three years of high school without school fees
Services and achievements in the Water and Sanitation areas include distribution of potable water via water points within the camps, the use of tin roofing to collect water, increasing daily water allocation to individuals (liters per person), dischargeable latrines, and materials for more durable showers. In terms of health, access to primary care is through campsite health centers.
What challenges did you observe in the refugee camps?
One of the big challenges is overcrowding of the camps. The living conditions are congested, and shelter houses are quite small and located close to each other. This affords very little, if any, privacy for its occupants. Crowding is common because Congolese families tend to be quite large, with an average of five children per family but as many as nine.
Additionally, there is currently little hope in the international community that the situation in the Congo will be resolved quickly. UNHCR is seeking solutions for better integration of refugees within the local Rwandan communities in close geographic proximity to refugee camps. For example, efforts are underway to modernize traditional feeding programs and integrate refugee children into the Rwandan public school system. Though Rwanda is quite overpopulated, its sensitivity to refugees is high; consequently, efforts are being made to accommodate the needs of the long-term refugee population within the country.
What did you learn in Rwanda that helped you in your work with refugees in Greensboro?
I learned that it may be challenging for Congolese refugees to adapt to American cultural norms such as punctuality and structured daily activities (school and work). The resettlement agency staff in the U.S. will need to be mindful of the stress that acculturation places on newcomers. Agencies should find ways to support and educate Congolese refugee’s successful integration into the American lifestyle. The refugees’ stress during this transition may initially manifest as situational depression, anxiety, listlessness, disinterest, or being overwhelmed with what one may consider “simple” life tasks. Oftentimes, service providers in the U.S. utilize a Western perspective when addressing the mental health needs of newly arriving refugees. Professionals need to be cautious to not pathologize the refugee experience and her/his response to the resettlement process. Resettlement agencies should consider exploring non-traditional approaches to mental health that focus on the personal and cultural strengths of refugees. Culturally-relevant mental health interventions that can be effective are: recreation activities such soccer, women’s sewing/craft groups, agricultural activities and gardening, participation in faith/religious services, and conversation groups that mirror the oral traditions of their culture.
Agencies will also need to be sensitive to the challenges that face new arrivals as they move from small, confined spaces to larger housings while also being physically separated from their community. One suggestion is that refugees be placed in a community setting so that they can easily interact with each other and receive mutual support. Another crucial issue that needs to be addressed when assigning housing is the awareness of ethnic/tribal affiliations among newcomers. Due to the historical and current political strife, ethnic relations are sensitive and conflict between groups may be carried over to their new country. This subject may require a delicate conversation in order to alleviate further tensions. Agencies need to be cautious when assigning Congolese staff and interpreters because of conflicting ethnic allegiances.
We know that the ASRP is in the process of writing a report based on its trip to Rwanda. Is the report available and where can we access it?
The report is still being written and will be peer reviewed to be printed in a journal. We will make it available for service providers as soon as we finalize it.
Is there any other information you would like to share about your experience?
We will be seeing a number of Congolese refugees arriving to the US in the coming years. It will be advisable to learn about this group of refugees in order to better assist them in their transition once they arrive. The majority of these refugees have spent a significant amount of time in the refugee camp and face linguistic and cultural barriers.