As Armed Groups Declare Cease-Fire, Young Congolese Refugees in Rwanda Focus on Education

Leaders of the M23 armed group declared a unilateral cease-fire yesterday during peace talks held in Uganda. Meanwhile, young refugees in Rwanda say they don’t plan to return to their country.

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As Armed Groups Declare Cease-Fire, Young Congolese Refugees in Rwanda Focus on Education

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KIGALI, RWANDA – “I was born in Congo and fled my country when I was a very little girl,” says Jeanine Kaneza, 20, a refugee at Gihembe refugee camp in Rwanda’s Northern province. “I was separated from my parents, and I haven’t heard from either of them since. I don’t know if they are still alive.”

Kaneza, tall and lean, was 11 when she reached the camp. Rwanda’s Ministry of Disaster Preparedness and Refugee Affairs established the camp in 1997 for those fleeing war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The ministry staff placed Kaneza with another family in the camp. And three years later, she began attending a refugee school outside the camp set up by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

When Kaneza was a student in in secondary school, she became pregnant with the child of one of her schoolmates and soon dropped out of school.

“My health deteriorated greatly, coupled with having concerns about my parents,” Kaneza says. “The absence of my parents caused me to worry and brought me to unending despair. I continued to live together with this hard reality, even after giving birth. I had lost confidence in myself.”

Today, Kaneza says the combination of losing her parents and her early pregnancy have ruined her chances of receiving an education.

“All this contributed to ruining my future,” Kaneza says. “I live a joyless life. I constantly wonder what I have to do to live a better life like everyone else.”

Young Congolese refugees in Rwanda say that an inability to afford higher education leaves little hope of re-establishing their lives locally. Idleness in the camps can lead to issues such as domestic violence and teenage pregnancy. The government has been establishing initiatives and offering technical training in the camps, but officials say the volume of refugees has overwhelmed their resources. Humanitarian organizations are pitching in to offer assistance and to connect youth with scholarships to further their education.

Small, identical houses dot the enclosed Gihembe refugee camp. Covered in plastic sheeting, they bear the imprint of “UNHCR,” the U.N. refugee agency, which provides aid to those in the camps.

Gihembe is one of three major spaces in Rwanda dedicated to Congolese refugees. It currently accommodates approximately 20,000 Congolese, according to the American Refugee Committee, a nonprofit organization that provides humanitarian assistance internationally.

More than 5 million people have died since the civil war broke out in the Congo in 1996. Tens of thousands of Congolese have also fled the country, according to the UNHCR.

The eastern region of the country has been particularly affected. After a period of relative peace, violence has escalated in the region since November 2012 when the armed group M23 seized the main city in the east, Goma.

Government representatives and M23 leaders are in Kampala, Uganda, this week to hold peace talks. The M23 declared a unilateral cease-fire yesterday, giving hope that the conflict may soon come to a peaceful resolution.

Despite political progress, refugees already in Rwandan camps say education remains among their top concerns.

Allen Uwanyirigira, 18, lives with his mom and four older siblings in the camp. Born in Congo, he and his parents fled to Rwanda in 1997.

“I was too little to know what was happening,” he says. “I became big enough when we were in the camp and subsequently realized that we live in the camp because we were forced to flee our home country.”

Uwanyirigira, the only one of his siblings to attend school, is a day student at a secondary school set up near the camp by the UNCHR. But he says his mother struggles to afford to send him.

His mother must sell a portion of the family’s aid to pay his school fees. Each refugee receives a monthly food basket consisting of 12 kilograms (26 pounds) of maize, 6 kilograms (13 pounds) of beans and 3 liters (3 quarts) of vegetable oil, in addition to one soap bar and some firewood.

“My mum has to sell the 3 liters of vegetable oil in order to pay my school fees,” he says.

Each term, Uwanyirigira pays 4,500 Rwandan francs ($7) for school fees using the 5,000 francs ($8) his mother makes from selling the oil. The family relies on the remaining portion of the food aid for sustenance, he says.

Uwanyirigira says that because his siblings did not attend school, their only option is to get married because they have no hope for employment in Rwanda, even as domestic workers.

“They can’t be employed as house boys or house girls because, today, you cannot get such a job if you are not educationally qualified for it,” he says.

He says he would like to attend university, but it’s expensive.

“Today, refugees don’t think it [is] worthwhile to study in Rwanda because refugees are not allowed to enter university after successfully passing national exams unless they can afford tuition fees,” Uwanyirigira says.

While they cannot receive scholarships to government schools, advocates say there is a need to sensitize refugees on the application processes. Refugees are eligible to apply for scholarships to private universities.

Other youths in the camp agree that improved access to university education is crucial to being able to support their families.

Pelesi Musanbera, 18, has grown up in the camp and is a current student in secondary school.

“While most of refugee children smoke hemp, others repetitively get pregnant,” she says. “Being the last-born of my family and the only child having a chance to attend school, I wish I were lucky to pursue my studies to be able to support my parents and elder siblings.”

She says that returning home to pursue higher education is impossible.

“Rwanda should allow us to continue our studies like nationals,” she says, “because we have no hope of returning to our homes to pursue our studies, for our country is torn by unending war. This is why we consider ourselves as Rwandan nationals.”

Pelesi Mukandekezi, a 41-year-old single mother who lives in the camp with her five children, agrees.

“We don’t plan to return to Congo at all,” she says. “Most of our family members were killed in that country, so that we have no reason at all to return there. We have to be realistic and choose between bad and worse. We prefer to lead this difficult refugee situation instead of returning there.”

The family depends entirely on aid, and Mukandekezi can’t afford to educate her children.

“It is difficult for me to carry the burden of raising these children by myself due to our difficult refugee situation,” she says. “I sometimes go crazy when I am overwhelmed by this situation. I am always afraid for the future of my children. I am afraid that some of them will have children born from unwanted pregnancy or become thugs.”

Idleness and frustration in the camps have led to violence, sex work and drug addiction, says Sayiba Nemeye, a refugee who leads an anti-gender-based violence club set up by the Ministry of Disaster Preparedness and Refugee Affairs in Gihembe refugee camp. The ministry enlists refugees to lead many of its initiatives inside the camp.

“Men often spend their hard-earned money on beer and hence don’t care about their homes, so that women need to fend for themselves to cater for household needs,” he says.

Disputes about these needs may lead to gender-based violence, with women as the primary victims, Nemeye says.

The ministry has established several administrative structures in the camp, like the club, to address these issues. The number of gender-based violence conflicts among refugees has started to decrease, Nemeye says.

“We hold with them weekly meetings, which help us to advise them to get rid of such behavior,” he says. “They abide by our advice.”

Frederic Ntawukuriryayo, public relations manager for Rwanda’s Ministry of Disaster Preparedness and Refugee Affairs, says the number of refugees has overwhelmed the ministry.

“The Ministry of Disaster Preparedness and Refugee Affairs has received a large number of refugees who required large-scale interventions,” he says.

The government of Japan established the new Kigeme refugee camp in Nyamagabe district last year. This camp has received Congolese refugees who have fled to Rwanda this year, Ntawukuriryayo says.

Refugees may live outside the camp if they have received refugee status and refugee identification documents, Ntawukuriryayo says. They can find employment and attain higher education as other citizens can if they complete the set requirements.

Within the camps, the Ministry of Education is currently offering technical training such as sewing courses and other forms of vocational and technical training, Musanbera says. They are also teaching refugees how to form cooperatives.

Some refugees living inside the camp have started their own businesses in the nearby town. But Musanbera says that higher education is still essential.

“Even if Rwanda tries to help us to attend school, I wish they could do more to help us to get degrees awarded by Rwandan schools,” Musanbera says. “Despite this, we are happy with what is being done to help us attend school and survive in the camp.”

The government relies on humanitarian organizations such as the UNHCR to assist in receiving refugees and providing items for them to survive in the camp. The UNHCR also advocates for refugee students to obtain scholarships outside the country.

Frederic Auger, the manager of the American Refugee Committee, says that his committee also does what it can to help young refugees to pursue higher education.

“We manage to send some of them to study abroad, where they find other sponsors,” he says.

He also encourages young refugees to think of creative solutions to support themselves and their families.

“We advise them to create their own jobs and try to overcome problems they encounter,” Auger says. “They need to engage in vocational and technical activities.”

Back in Gihembe, Kaneza says she encourages other girls to do what they can to stay in school. And despite the refugees’ hardships, she says that she and other youth have not lost hope.

“We really believe that there is always sunshine after the rain,” Kaneza says.