Thoughts on refugee work
Working with refugees isn’t easy. There are touching, inspirational moments that bring tears to your eyes and remind you why you chose this work—and there are moments that make you want to jump up and down and scream.
Most of the refugees at our camp left their homes with little more than the shirts on their backs. At home, they had jobs, they had land, they had dreams. But then their houses were torched, their land was stolen, and the violence that surrounded them—and pursued them—forced them to flee. Now, most of the adults sit idly in the camp. Others venture into the neighboring village in search of employment, which, if found, generally means farming work for that day only. The pay hovers around 200 Francs a day, or $0.40. They are desperate for money. Some girls, who wish to acquire new skirts, consider prostituting themselves. Families sell their two-week World Food Programme-allocated ration to make a profit and diversify their meals. It’s a sad situation, one that no one should ever have to experience.
It was in this context that I worked. I wanted to initiate and implement programs on a budget—literally—of $0. I was a volunteer, so I wasn’t paid, and, in fact, was draining my life savings during my stay. If I needed money to implement a program, it had to be my own. (I am very grateful for the generous contributions of my friends in June and July, which were an enormous help.) I didn’t wallow in self-pity—after all, it was my choice to go to Rwanda in the first place—but I did want just a smidgin of recognition from the refugees that I was doing the most I could with the few resources I had.
Being a muzungu, however, this recognition was hard to come by. The term “muzungu” really means “light-skinned,” but has become synonymous with “rich person.” To the refugees, I was rich, and many believed that they were entitled to whatever I could give them—and more—because I could afford it. By American standards, I was not—but that was not something they could understand. So when I had my first meeting with the Refugee Youth Committee and made the announcement that I had purchased two soccer balls for them, they began by thanking me profusely—and finished by asking me for volleyballs, too. I was devastated—I had spent $60 (I was overcharged, of course, because I was a “rich person”) for the balls, an expense I had never budgeted for, and where I had expected gratitude, I received a request for more. I told them that I didn’t have the money to buy them more balls—and that if they wanted to play volleyball, they needed a net, too, which I couldn’t provide, either. I was crushed. When I gave as much as I could, they asked for more.
The episode was repeated the next time I met with the youth. “Thanks for the balls,” they said. “They’re almost broken. Next time, can you get leather ones? They last longer.” It seemed a fair request, though I was in no financial position to buy them any more. I discussed the issue with Boniface. “They’re crazy,” he said. “Leather balls cost $100 each. They’ve never played with a leather ball in their lives.” They had again seen me as having deep pockets, which I found very upsetting. After all, if I hadn’t come to Rwanda, they wouldn’t have had any soccer balls at all, because playing soccer wasn’t a basic human need, and the UN is only in the business of providing basic human needs. I had decided to start a soccer league because the adolescents weren’t in school and needed something to do. It was a privilege, not a right. I couldn’t explain this to them, but it was something that I hoped they would understand.
I frequently told them that there was no pot of money anywhere, that these were my resources. So when one refugee subsequently asked, “Why? After all, you’re a ‘bailleur de fonds’” (a funder), I became visibly upset. Only one among them, the de facto leader, understood me, and it was he that endeavored to explain that I was not the wealthy donor everyone took me to be.
This episode was not the only one—the AIDS-awareness theatre group that I formed wanted to be paid for every performance, saying that at the other camps, NGOs paid the actors. We didn’t have any NGO partners in our camp, and I didn’t think that they should be paid for what should be a public service. When I organized a 3-day training workshop on AIDS for the refugees, the session was supposed to start at 9 am. By noon the room was still empty, and the CARE International trainer sat alone with his materials waiting for people to show. The refugees had wanted some kind of compensation for attending the workshop; they didn’t understand that the knowledge itself was valuable. A malaria problem developed as a result of the presence of pools of standing water. We brought bags of sand to fill the holes, and asked the refugees to help us. They refused, saying that at other camps, NGOs took care of that—and that if we wanted them to help, we had to pay them. It was as if they didn’t understand that it was in their own interest. We gave them a choice between paying them for filling the holes or buying school uniforms for their kids so they wouldn’t stand out as refugees in class. They wisely (though grudgingly) chose the latter.
The thing is, I couldn’t entirely blame them for having the attitude of always wanting to be compensated, always asking for more. Many of my colleagues and acquaintances were deeply annoyed, complaining that they acted helpless, that many people have the twisted idea that when they become refugees, they should receive a paycheck from UNHCR. In many ways, that’s true—if someone is doing something for you (especially when it’s the UN, universally understood to have deep pockets), why do something yourself? “The refugees know that when they return home, they won’t be given kilos and kilos of food every two weeks, and they won’t receive free medical services. They will be compelled to work because they won’t have anyone else to rely on, and will be much more resourceful,” one colleague said. “Right now, they act like they can’t do anything for themselves.” But I think that this is due in part to humanitarian aid. There are no sensitization programs for refugees on what their rights—and responsibilities—are. Some NGOs are less responsible than others, providing compensation for things that should be voluntary. Above all, humanitarian aid should really be humanitarian assistance, in the sense that the former is a donation, and the latter implies a partnership. Because that’s how the international community should view refugees—not uniquely as victims, but also as partners.
For every disappointing encounter with the refugees, however, there were many wonderful ones. Everyone at the camp knew my name, because I told them in broken Kinyarwanda, “Nitwa Morgani. Oya Muzungu,” which means: “My name is Morgan. No[t] Muzungu.” I could always tell who the new refugees were because they called me “muzungu” and would stare at me, mouths agape. The kids would correct the newcomers. The kids were simply charming—they would see the UN car rumble into the camp, up to the front office, and as they watched my arrival, they would wave and say, “Bye!” because they didn’t know the difference between “Hi” and “Bye.” When I descended from the car, they would crowd around and call, “Morgani!” and then make a fist (sometimes with a thumbs-up) and clamor to touch fists with me, exclaiming, “Chance!” (I’m pretty sure they meant “cheers” but my efforts to correct them failed.)
The children would dance around, doing fake martial arts to make me laugh—they would do anything to make me laugh. I often chased them around, tickling them and twirling them around. A few among them became my favorites: one, a shy little girl (who’s holding the UNICEF sign in my post about sending the kids to school); a couple of mischievous little boys; a handicapped girl who, I believe, has Parkinson’s disease; and a 27 year-old guy named Emmanuel, the de facto leader of the youth, and the only Anglophone among the refugees.
I also remember how I nearly began to cry after I found out that the refugee team didn’t just win the game on World Refugee Day—the day they received new balls and jerseys, and finally had proper goals—they had won spectacularly, 4-1. (I had posted 3-1 before, but I was later informed that that was a mistake.) It was everything I had hoped for—I wanted to show them that they could do a lot with very little, and with just the basics, our soccer team rose to become one of the best (if not the best, because to date, they’re undefeated) in the area.
The AIDS-awareness theatre group did the same, on World Refugee Day. They put on a spectacular 40-minute performance. And the Scouts would regularly greet each other with a secret handshake—the youth were excited to be a part of something bigger than the camp, an organization that provided them with inspiration, a rare commodity.
The other thing that struck me about the refugees was their love of writing thank-you letters. They always managed to procure paper, a pen, and air-mail envelopes, and what they wrote was always charming. The morning of my departure, I stopped briefly by the camp for a last goodbye. Emmanuel translated a letter that the youth had collectively written for me. As he read, tears began to well in my eyes, and with a complete lack of composure, I broke down sobbing.
From the youth of Nkamira:
We are hereby saying goodbye and thanking Our Morgan.
We are thanking her for all she brought to us.
You introduced the [Boy/Girl] Scouts to Nkamira for the first time;
You brought the youth together by giving them soccer balls;
You developed and supported the anti-AIDS theatre club;
You were an openhearted girl throughout your stay at Nkamira.
Even though you are leaving, we hope you will always support us and will never forget us.
Notez Bien (Please Note):
We thank everyone who has helped us, and we hope that someone who feels they can be a friend to us they way you have will continue your achievements after you leave.
I hugged Emmanuel and thanked the youth, getting back into the car. We had to leave. And as we went, the children waved a ran next to the car, crying, “Bye! Bye!” They had gotten it right this time.