Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Making a settlement a home: Refugees rebuilding their lives in Tanzania

By Katherine Donaldson
Copy edited and produced by Hilary Johnson

Hundreds of thousands of Africans are displaced every year – whether it is because of extensive military violence, government coups, or even genocides. When these unthinkable acts happen, thousands of families flee unstable regions and are forced to move away from everything they know to ensure safety. While many of the nations in southern Africa have seen violence and rebellion, one nation stands alone as a place of peace and acceptance.

Tanzania is one of the few places in the continent that has been able to maintain stability over the years – allowing the citizens and government to open their land to the refugees in the region.

Refugee women work in community gardens
under a self-reliance project at Mkugwa camp in
Kibondo. / UNCHR, L. Taylor
According to the Tanzania Ministry of Home Affairs Department of Refugees, the country has been an asylum nation for more than 60 years, taking in almost a million refugees from nations all over the continent of Africa. The first wave of refugees arrived in 1959 - the Rwandese Tutsis.  Up until the 1990’s, refugees continued to spill into Tanzania from countries like Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Somalia. The government quickly developed settlements for the refugees and they took on the sole responsibility of managing the camps and offering all social services with minimal assistance from the international community. Some groups came and went, simply waiting to return home once order was restored. Others dreamed of a better life in a peaceful country like Tanzania.
One such group was the 345,000 Burundis who entered Tanzania in October 1993 after the country’s first democratically elected president was assassinated. While the government viewed the refugees’ time in Tanzania as temporary, even going as far to create camps instead of settlements, the Burundi refugees stayed for many years. The country saw another influx of refugees, around 750,000, fleeing from Rwanda in 1994. The Tanzanian government made an unprecedented decision in 2010 to allow 162,000 Burundi refugees to become naturalized citizens. Refugees in Tanzania are encouraged to return home if it is safe, but more and more are wishing to change their loyalty to the country that housed them when no one else would.

One such individual is Osman Mwale Macheremu (nickname of Kizito). The U.N. Refugee Agency in Tanzania considers Kizito one of the bravest refugees to seek sanctuary in Tanzania. While Kizito’s story will never be widely known, the UNHCR spread his tale through their “1 Life: 1 Story” video project. According to Kizito’s testimony for the project, he was raised in Somalia by Italian missionaries. He shares the Bantu culture with many Tanzanians, but his ancestors were trafficked to Somalia by Arab slavers. When civil war broke out in Somalia, Kizito made arrangements for his wife and children to find safety in nearby Tanzania. While his family was able to cross borders to safety, he chose to do the honorable thing and remain in Somalia to care for his parents who were incapable of making the difficult journey.
Kizito did not see his family for nine years, ultimately waiting for his parents to pass away before searching for the family. Once Kizito arrived in Tanzania, he was not only able to reunite with his wife and daughters, but able to obtain full Tanzanian citizenship. He told the UNHCR: “I was among the first to request Tanzanian citizenship despite the fact that I was one of the last to arrive. But I felt this is my real place, where I have to live, do or die. Outside here I would die.” When he finally did receive the citizenship document, Kizito kissed the paper and fell to his knees out of joy.

The United Nations developed the UNHCR after World War II, and their work around the world since has grown exponentially. Jerome Seregni is the Assistant External Relations Officer at the UNHCR’s office in Tanzania and has personally seen the refugee situation within Tanzania.

The UNHCR offers many services and interacts with refugees at the settlements still operating. They work with the Tanzanian government and the refugees to determine when people can leave and if specific individuals require protection and new citizenship.
The UNHCR also offers social services to the refugee settlements, including food, water, educational programs and health care. The health options are so advanced that many Tanzanian citizens are traveling to the settlements to use the services.
Seregni says the organization has two durable solutions in 2012 to find permanent homes for refugees: allowing refugees to leave Tanzania if it is deemed safe or integrating all of the newly naturalized citizens into Tanzanian life and culture. While many of the refugees enjoy their host country, Seregni reminds people, “When you are away, you want to go back home. You want to go back to your normal life and see friends, family, the community you left behind”. In the interest of assisting refugees to one day return home, the UNHCR has begun to create programs to teach skills and create community relationships.
Education is extremely important in helping uprooted
children at Mkugwa camp. / UNHCR, L. Taylor
One of the programs took place in February when hundreds of school-aged children gathered to learn about a simple joy– art. One hundred kids came from the Nyarugusu refugee camp – a camp in northwestern Tanzania that hosts Congolese refugees. The UNHCR created the workshop so the children could learn the basics of painting with water colors, pastels and acrylics as well as how to make collages. The children were taught the skills by some of Tanzania’s most famous artists – Obadia Mbise, Thobias Minzi, and Haji Chilonga. The workshop created a relaxing environment - the children were able to leave behind much of their stress and worry and were able to create artistic pieces that displayed their stories and personalities. According to the Ujamaa Art Gallery, the best pieces were chosen to go on display at the gallery. The paintings, drawings and collages will be sold in the coming weeks, and all proceeds will benefit the refugees and their host communities. The UNHCR is currently working with other local partners to continue this type of project and possibly add elements of drama, music, and literature.
While the refugee situation in Tanzania will continue for years, there is great hope for those who make their home in the country. Many could look at the situation and see a country economically and spatially burdened by the plight of others, but Jerome Seregni says the partnership between Tanzania and the refugees is, and has always been, positive: “The citizens are always willing to help. They are making a huge step in this region and its gaining international recognition”. The refugee numbers are now in a steady rate of decline, but Tanzania has created a permanent place of protection and shelter for those who seek it.  

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