The ideal home is one in which we feel comfort when we enter; where we can let go of the problems of our day and feel safe and loved. Such is not the case for the 90,000 Burundi refugees who have left their homes in terror, sometimes walking for a month with little food or water, to reach camps in places like Rwanda and Tanzania. Having come from places where traumatizing events is the norm, they often bring with them haunting memories of sexual violence, torture, political persecution, forced child soldiering, and genocide.
The story of Mariama Kwizera began 7 years ago when she came home at the age of 9 to find both her parents murdered by the militia. She took her 2 younger siblings and went to live in an uncle’s home, but he also died several years later. At the young age of 14 she found herself responsible for her siblings, with no home, food, or job. To make matters worse, political violence was worsening.
“We felt threatened,” she says. “The security situation in our country was getting worse every day. We had no parents and nobody to protect us… People were being killed or beaten up – that’s the reason why we decided to leave.”
A good decision.
On April 26th, a decision made by the ruling CNDDFDD party to back President Pierre Nkurunziza as its candidate for the upcoming elections lead to more violent protesting and opposition. The decision was considered unconstitutional because President Nkurunziza has already served 2 five year terms, which is the limit according to the law. But backers of the president say his first term of office doesn’t count because he was picked by parliament, and not a popular vote.
Whatever the reason behind the turmoil, families are broken up, and the real sufferers are the children. According to UNICEF Tanzania Representative Dr. Jama Gulaid, this uprooting is largely a crisis facing children. “Eighty three per cent of the population on the move that has been registered in Tanzania are children…We have at least 1,200 children who have been screened here at the [Kigoma] stadium, who are unaccompanied or separated from their parents.” In other words, alone and unprotected.
The United Nations says the first of five major issues for children in refugee camps is separation of children from their families. In the best interest of the child, it is important to document the separation and attempt to reunite the child with his/her family, if they are alive. “A strong family support network is essential to the proper growth and development of children in general, but especially those living in refugee camps.”
With the upheaval children have already been through, being with their family can be the first step to feeling safe enough to begin the healing process. Safety and protection are not guaranteed in these camps. Typically they are run by humanitarian efforts, who rely on donations and volunteers. They are overcrowded and finding food and water is still a challenge. Sexual and physical violence plague the weak and the helpless.
But there is still hope.
Research from the APA Task Force on the Psychosocial Effects of War on Children and Families Who Are Refugees, indicate remarkable resilience in these families as they cope with the mental and physical stresses they have endured. Besides providing protection to their children, parents model the ability to adapt, including learning a new culture, providing for their families, and looking out for educational opportunities sometimes provided by the camps.
Hubwimana Inosenti did not arrive at Kigoma refugee camp until five days after his wife, Ndaishimiye, and their four children. He had spent one month on the road, arriving sick, exhausted, and malnourished. But being together was enough for them. Though they had previously spent 4 years in the Tabiri Refugee camp, returning home to Burundi for only 2 years before being forced out again, they still dream of returning. Like many families throughout the world, they have ambitions for themselves and their children. They aspire to become farmers of beans and maize. Through it all, they have not lost their spirit or hope.
A land of freedom gives us the space we need to grow as families. For so many throughout the world, there is no freedom, only survival. Those of us who are lucky enough to have such freedoms must take care that we don’t lose them. In the United States, our freedom to be a family has been eroding slowly, and therefore, mostly undetected. Take just a moment today to think about what you can do to support the cause of families around the world, and send a prayer out for our friends in Africa.