The thing I’ll remember the most about my two days in the Kiziba Refugee camp were the children. They were everywhere, since half of the camp’s 20,000 residents are under the age of 15. They shouted endless “good morning!”s to me, jostled for position in front of my camera, and mostly just followed in a noisy, snot-nosed crowd.
Those young people have never known a different home. Their families fled the murder, rape, and lawlessness in the DR Congo and crossed the border to Rwanda, where they’ve lived in this camp. That started in 1996, and they’re still there.
They want to go home. That’s the message I heard several times, even from the young men who had never seen “home.” This was a strange idea for my Canadian team, and we asked why they didn’t just leave the camp and accept the Rwandan citizenship offered by their host country. In Canada, a nation of immigrants, your family’s traditional land is not important. But for these Congolese, it’s a crucial part of their identity. Even if they did try to make it as a Rwandan, they’d be just another poor person without land, education, job prospects, or any money to start a new life.
Instead, the camp residents are making the best of their limited situation. Some are starting businesses or working on community projects (although options are very limited). They’re also hoping to be one of the 15 families or so that are accepted each year to resettle in a foreign country. Whether hoping for a ticket to Canada or a return to a peaceful Congo, most have spent 15 years waiting. That wait likely won’t end soon.
I don’t have answers yet, but I have learned a lot of good questions. I’ve also gained a new appreciation for where my refugee friends in Canada came from. They would have worshipped in church each Sunday, collected firewood for hours, and played football in their refugee community. They might have held leadership positions or had jobs. There’s a functional, but very impoverished, society inside these camps. The people my team met were the leaders who worked hard to improve their situation, and I was happy to learn about and encourage their efforts.