On the Razor's Edge of Hope
Trip Start Apr 26, 2005
42Trip End Nov 17, 2005
Roger has been a refugee all his life. Born in Kigali, Rwanda, to Burundian refugee parents, as a child he used to hide under his bed to avoid the bullets. He and his family fled from one conflict to another before he found sanctuary in Malawi. His story is replicated in the experience of hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers in Africa, but for one significant twist.
With the help of WUSC's Student Refugee Sponsorship Programme, and English lessons provided by a teacher from the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), Roger has a chance to go to university in Canada, and may be one of the lucky few to escape the uncertain life of a refugee
Roger and a handful of students from the programme take me on a tour of Dzaleka.
In a narrow alleyway near Roger's house ("Dzaleka Highway," one of the students call it) children ferry bricks on makeshift carts made of plastic and wood. One little boy drags a brick on a smashed up water container tied to a string. Though the UNHCR runs the camp and provides security, health care water and food--rations of maize meal, sugar and cooking oil and other needs that they don't always receive--the refugees are responsible for building their own houses and sanitation facilities. A hole in the ground with a modest enclosure serves most. The students say it's not unusual for people to bathe out in the open.
What privacy there is is maintained behind fences of tall grass and gates made of old USAid cooking oil tins hammered into door panels. Remnants of the camps former life as a notorious prison can still be seen in the laundry drying on barbed wire. Old cell blocks have been converted into houses, beside a derelict water tower sits at the edge of camp, where the prison fence used to be, visible now as a well-trod line in the earth
Not far from Rogers house is where the crocodile pit used to be. The late Malawian dictator, Kamuzu Banda, used to boast about feeding his enemies to the crocodiles. When Roger moved here in 1997 the authorities were taking them out in trucks.
Earlier in the day I'd sat in on the students' weekly English class, taught by Sister Sarah Smith and held in the Jesuit Refugee Service building at the edge of the camp. The hard part of the International English Language Training System course, the 5-month intensive training, is over, so the class of 13 now only meets on Tuesdays for follow-up lessons. Today Sister Sarah is giving a lesson on idioms; "touching base", "going off the deep end", and "going to bat" for someone.
Yet the students are less interested in their lesson than in what Canada is like, and are eager to pump me for information. They receive comparatively little education about Canada and Canadian society, and are curious about how they will cope in Canada, what kind of food we eat, and what the towns and cities look like. I find myself answering more questions than asking them, and am pleased that I can share my knowledge with people who so obviously need it
But as great an opportunity as these students have, they still talk about the chance of going to Canada as an 'if'. Some still don't have refugee status in Malawi, let alone papers that will allow them into Canada. "There's always a doubt," says Sister Sarah. "Their future is very uncertain until they board the plane."
But for those lucky enough to be chosen to study in Canada--less than 30 in the 5 years that WUSC has been running the refugee sponsorship programme--the opportunity is a once in a life time chance, says Sister Sarah. "You only have to visit the camp, to imagine being here years and years, and all of a sudden having an opportunity like this... to begin life again."