Friday, March 5, 2010

Life in Dzaleka Refugee Camp, Malawi

With the number of armed conflicts increasing rather than ceasing in many countries, there are millions and millions of refugees worldwide. All have escaped their home countries, leaving their properties behind in order to avoid being killed. They also suffer from the post traumatic stress of having watched their loved ones being murdered.

Too often, the trauma refugees have experienced during war and also their flight from war is what shapes the status of each individual refugee. Refugees live in camps under the host countries’ policy and constitutional rules. When it comes to host countries’ policies, most countries treat refugees as prisoners rather than as innocent human beings with dignity, therefore making them innocent prisoners. Life in the refugee camps would be a fate worse than death except for the fact that the refugees are there in order to try to stay alive.

Some people wonder what daily life in a refugee in a camp is like. Here are some facts from my personal experience:

Well, most camps are built like a prison or mental hospital, located in the middle of nowhere, far from main cities. They are fenced and in some cases they have guards to ensure no one enters OR leaves without authorization. Some camps are built in the most inhospitable, isolated and barren areas, without electrical power, potable water, sewer—it makes life very difficult because people have to walk miles to fetch water from dirt rivers and use candlelight, although, they have no money to afford candles. A daily life routine of a typical refugee has nothing in common with the rest of the world. Accurately, it may be similar to that of a convict who has been sentenced to a prison term, except that in the camp, you have no idea when or if you’ll ever get out, so you have no hope for the future.

I spent 17 years in a number of refugee camps before the World University Services of Canada resettled me to Canada through its life serving student refugee program. I last lived in a Malawian Camp called Dzaleka. Dzaleka camp is located in the coldest and most isolated part of the country. There are approximately 10,000 refugees residing in the camp, however the camp itself is only meant to accommodate 4,000 people. It is used to be a prison for political prisoners of the former dictator president of Malawi. The heavy cold was believed to be a severe punishment for Dr Banda’s opponents.

Malawi accepted and is willingly hosting refugees. However, it struggles to accommodate their needs while keeping the Malawian citizens happy. As a poor nation, Malawi is politically and economically limited in the freedoms it “feels” it can allow refugees.

United Nation High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) guidelines require that the host country allow refugees to pursue employment, but the guidelines are not enforceable because refugee camps are not sites of citizenship. Malawi has placed reservations on its obligations as host, such that refugees are not allowed freedom of movement and access to the Malawian economy through employment. Malawi’s restrictions have prevented many refugees from finding reliable employment, perpetuating severe and unbearable situations including the shortage of food which leads to malnutrition, lack of access to health care, extreme poverty, poor housing, and various other forms of restrictions.

Malawi provides refugees with space, nothing more. Upon their arrival, refugees are provided with tents to build houses. However because the tents are not replaced, after a couple of years they are worn out and refugees are forced to make a house from scratch. Now this may make you wonder, how one can make a house from scratch? Well, when there is no option you kind of force yourself to find some.

A typical dwelling is made of primitive bricks with a roof made of grass. The grass is well packed together in hopes that when it rains the water will not penetrate. However, due to the windy weather, the grass is blown off the house leaving spaces for the rain to pass through. So, when it rains everything and everybody in the house is drenched, creating almost nowhere to escape the cold.

Refugees in Dzaleka, just like other refugees elsewhere, rely on the food provided by the UNHCR. Food is distributed only once a month, but from my experience with my family, it is not enough to last for the whole month. Refugees are anxiously eager to utilize their creativity, intelligence, talents and ability to search for any opportunity to supplement their rations but unfortunately their efforts are blocked by the Malawian government. Any attempt by the refugees to grow food for themselves is prevented because of the fear that the Malawian people will suffer as a result of competition. Thus, refugees are forced to barely exist on what little the UNHCR provides. `

The UNHCR provides lentils, maize, corn meal, cooking oil, salt, occasionally rice, and on an alternate basis, lentils, dried peas or beans. Fresh vegetables can usually only be obtained by trading some rations to local Malawians. As the rations are already insufficient to feed a family for whole month, trading rations for vegetables means an additional sacrifice to the diet. Accordingly, during the last week of the month, before new rations can be received, only one or two meals can be eaten per day. This is an especially difficult hardship for growing children. Refugees wander around the nearby villages to trade some of their food (beans, flour, rice or cooking oil) to the natives for wild meats and clothes.

Young people play soccer to make the most of their days, while parents wander over to nearby villages in order to trade things for meat in an effort to create better meals for their families. In Dzaleka, there is no such thing as being “proactive”; planning ahead is an impossible concept. Most refugees love using the phrase “tomorrow belongs to God” because they are not in control of their own lives and their hope for the future has been eclipsed by the violence, poverty and insecurity in which their lives are imbedded. They may try to plan something, but not being able to know the outcome makes this effort seem useless to the refugees.

The UNHCR also provides a small clinic which all the refugees can go to. However, the clinic has limited resources and it doesn’t manage to attend to all the health problems of each refugee in the camp. Referrals to Malawian hospitals occur only for the most urgent cases. Many refugees with long lingering illness never receive adequate treatment. Insofar as most of the ailments are caused by the severe state of poverty and malnutrition that the inhabitants of Dzaleka are forced to live in, sickness is endemic in the camp.

Malawi denies refugees the right of movement. Refugees are trapped in the camp and not allowed to explore other parts of the country. Many refugees have tried to go to the cities to search for jobs but they are arrested, harassed, humiliated and returned to the camp. Many refugees have business backgrounds and are eager to start their own business in order to supplement the rations but their initiative is undermined and stymied.

During 2008, police arrested hundreds of refugees for having left the camp, and during the year authorities closed more than 50 shops operated by refugees and forced their owners back to the camp. Currently, the situation is getting even worse. In a phone conversation I was told of people I know who have been arrested and whose shops have been closed for several months. During my two years in Canada, I can’t even count how many times my dad has been in prison. It is overwhelming to learn that your loved ones are in prison for no crime. At least if someone is accused of a crime, you kind of feel sorry but on the other hand you can try to make sense of the fact that they are undergoing a punishment process.

Despite the fact that refugees have no place to call home, they are strongly reluctant to go back to their countries of origin due to the fear of being murdered. Most refugees have been living in refugee camps for more than 20 years. Most of them are traumatized from the humiliations they experienced in warfare. In addition, some countries are still embroiled in war and refugees find it hard to go back to what they have run away from. Also for many, their long stay in refugee camps gives their home countries an excuse to deny them land ownership and other property and citizenship rights. In effect, their country of birth can no longer be their home and they are doomed to wander the earth as stateless people, despite UN rules, unless a generous government is willing to permanently resettle them. For example, Burundian refugees have nowhere to live even if the government of Burundi was seriously prepared to allow them to go back peacefully. As there is no peace between the government and its opponents, there is no possibility for a peaceful return to Burundi. Burundian refugees who have spent 30 years in camps, which is the case for most of them, are no longer welcome in their native country under any circumstances.

Refugees in Dzaleka have three options: Repatriation (should war end, refugees have to return to their countries with financial help to rebuild), integration (should war last longer, refugees are to be integrated into the local population and granted land and citizenship), and resettlement (this is a relocation to Western countries where they are granted opportunities to study, work and start a new life). With wars never ending and integration becoming difficult to achieve, resettlement remains the only solution, yet only one percent of the 25 million refugees worldwide has a realistic chance to achieve this. Many refugees end up trapped in camps in extreme poverty with no hope for the future.

The one percent refugee resettlement includes the effort of UNHCR and nongovernmental organizations. The UNHCR resettles families but it’s efforts are very limited. Normally, refugees keep writing letters to UNHCR outlining their problems hoping to be resettled in a new place where they don’t have to face persecution and insecurity. My dad has been a refugee for 30 years and I can’t remember how many letters he has written, probably more than 50.

In addition to UNHCR, WUSC, through its student refugee program, sponsors refugees from various refugee camp to study in Canada. Each year, more than 45 student refugees enter and through an agreement with Citizenship and Immigration Canada they are eligible to resettle here as landed immigrants. Thanks to WUSC for thinking about forgotten human beings. This is how I ended up on Burnaby Mountain, Simon Fraser University! WUSC offered me a life-engendering opportunity that otherwise would have been unimaginable. In refugees camps parents are poor and cannot afford to invest in their children’s education. Even if they did, due to restrictions by host countries student refugees have no space in local universities. I am 100% certain that I wouldn’t be in school now without WUSC. I would be a very different “Joselyne”. Sometimes I question whether it was fair for me to be blessed amongst the millions of refugees.

There are deteriorating situations around the world and when I think of the people I came across during my 17 years as a refugee, and those I left behind with no hope, I realize how lucky I am and how life-changing it can be when people decide to make a difference in others’ lives.

And....I have taken it upon myself to do all I can to make a difference in others’ lives too. I used to think that, I can only help others when I am done with school, have extra money like Bill Gates to share. But I have learned that we don’t need all these, we don’t need a degree to serve, all we need is the love, the willingness and the connection with people in need. My connection with my family and the Dzaleka refugee community is continuous even though I have left the camp. I am away from their faces and their everyday struggles, but they remain in my prayers and actions.
I established the Dzaleka Project in December 2008 in order to raise awareness and funds for refugees in the Dzaleka refugee camp.

As I consider the Dzaleka project as a chance for me to make a difference in my own refugee community, I hope that it can also be a chance for you to realize not only how lucky you are to be in a country where you do you do not suffer from mass persecution or violence, but that you realize you can make a wonderful difference for people who have not been quite as lucky as you.


  1. Hi,
    I find what you wrote very interesting and useful for me. I am going to write an academic paper about human rights violations in refugee camps, and I want to visit Dzaleka camp to talk to the people. Can you provide me with more information? I will be looking specifically on the violation of the freedom of movement.

  2. We in VT have a small Quaker-led project in Dzaleka and would like to coordinate with you.