Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Refugee camp life

Posted By on Tue, Jun 2, 2009 at 2:40 PM

With the number of armed conflicts increasing rather than ceasing in many countries, millions of refugees keep living like prisoners in thousands of refugee camps around the world. Nobody willingly would choose to live in refugee camps but when it comes to war, they are the best option to avoid the guns and manslaughter. Despite hunger, sanitation and being deprived of technology, it still feels safer to be in the camp than living outside in war torn countries. From as few as 300 people to as many as 25,000 people per camp in over 150 countries around the globe and as hard as it may be to track the daily life of a typical refugee… here are some pionts from personal experience.

Some people wonder how daily life in a refugee in a camp goes. 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, stream water, sewer—it makes life a bit tougher because people will then have to walk miles to fetch water from dirt rivers and use candlelight while 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. It may well relate a bit with that of a convict who has been sentenced to a prison term, but here you have no idea when you’ll ever get out, so you have no plan and all your hope fades away. Beside sitting in shade playing games, discussing and sleeping, there is nothing else most refugees gain at the end of the day.

Few of them are given little pieces of land to farm while others wander around the nearby villages to trade some of their given food (beans, four, rice or cooking oil) to the natives for wild meats and clothes. Young people will be paying soccer to make the most of their days, parents will be wondering in the nearby villages trading things for meats to earn a good meal for their families while women will be staying at home cleaning and are the ones that spend more time in churches and prayer meetings asking grace for their families. That’s the daily routine: never plan a month ahead, that’s out of reach. Most refugees love using the term “tomorrow belongs to God” not because they have planned something and don’t know the outcome but because they know nothing about tomorrow than doing the above routine.

Refugees are referred to by number rather than name. In many countries they are ill-treated by the citizens, blamed for spoiling things and bringing problem in these countries, but that is better than being chased with a machete where they came from. Surviving on 10 American dollars a month, most single families join in living and cooking together in order for the food to last a month. In many countries they (the United Nations High Commission for Refugees) give you a tent and machete to make your own home once you arrive. In Malawi , you have to make the bricks used to build your home.

The UN High Commission has three solutions to help refugees: 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 have a realistic chance to achieve this. Many refugees end up living in camps for years and years.

I spent 9 years in a number of camps before being resettled in the USA, but it was nothing compared to the 37 years spent by the 1972 Burundian people in Tanzania. Some say refugees have 99% chance of poverty. Maybe that’s because they are gambling on a 1% chance of resettlement rather than working toward realistic opportunities.

With refugee camps heavily protected, refugees are not allowed to hold jobs, in some countries they are not allowed to live in the cities or attend school outside the camp. This deprives refugees access to the outside world. It was very embarrassing when I was resettled to Boise; I had to be given computer lessons by a 5-year-old or be surprised by the infrastructure; things like escalators and elevators looked strange. Now I have a good life, safety and protection, but I guess as bad as the refugee camp was it served its purpose of holding people together while they await their destiny.

There are deteriorating situations around the world and when I remember the people I came across in my 13 years as a refugee, and those I left behind with no hope, I become less optimistic about life in general.

Sometimes I question whether it was fair for me to be blessed amongst the millions of refugees.

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