November 08, 2016

"These children were running to save their lives, not to save a piece of paper to register for an exam"

A Congolese refugee family in Kenya who told their harrowing story

Samwell Ojijo

Samwell Ojijo

Global Youth Ambassador from Kenya

Kayole, an area in the east of Nairobi, Kenya, is home to thousands of Congolese refugees. They spoke about their harrowing experiences as they fled from conflict and their lives since.

Refugees are the most vulnerable people in our society, though we often forget them - especially when there is very little media coverage of their predicament. 

Last month, I met over 100 refugee families and listened to their stories with a group of volunteers. I would like to tell the untold stories of Congolese refugees. 

Kayole, an area in the east of Nairobi, is home to thousands of Congolese refugees. The look on their faces, their smiles and their beauty too often hides the untold stories behind their stay in the city. 

There are so many of them and they are desperate - but it is not written on their faces. Their story is one of life or death; the ones telling it are alive but the ones not telling it are gone - their stories never to be narrated by any being. 

Many of them fled their homes because people came and burnt their homes, took their livestock, destroyed their gardens, scattered their families and butchered anyone they could find. The escape to anywhere became a matter of emergency. 

Their journey ends up in Kayole, the eastern part of Nairobi, where the population is already packed but since housing is cheap it is the best option. 

Most of the women who are lucky enough to have escaped with their family are happy to live selling Kitenge (women’s clothing). They may not know where their husbands are but live in hope that they are safe somewhere and as they whisper a prayer before bed they remember them and ask for God’s grace to see them.

This mother of six is happy her children are safe - even if they are not in school

Samwell Ojijo

If you ask them if they feel safe in Kayole, they will tell you they are fine and feeling at home. But Kayole in Nairobi is not one of the safest estates around; Nairobians would quickly tell you it has very high crime rates. 

This tells us how unbearable the place they’ve come from must have been. Until we live their lives we cannot fully understand but we can listen to their stories and hope with them for a better future. 

Most refugees who were chased from school have found life hard. The Kenyan system is majorly taught in English and the Congolese system is in French. 

They say when they go to Kenyan schools they often have to start at a much lower grade than the one they were in at home because they cannot read and write English well. 

The system is not fair but to them, but just getting a chance to be in school means the world to them. The few who are lucky to gain admission to government schools have the challenge of buying school uniforms and food to eat. Others have a greater struggle - enormous private school fees. 

When they were narrating their stories they were very emotional but afterwards they felt so relieved that at least they have released some of their burden.

Many struggle through all of these barriers to successfully reach the stage when they are required to sit for National Examinations, but then they are unable to register because they do not have birth certificates. These children were running to save their lives, not to save a piece of paper. 

The volunteers worked for a whole day listening to stories. We were overwhelmed. These people wanted so badly to tell their stories, and for anybody to sit down to listen to them. 

When they were narrating their stories they were very emotional but afterwards they felt so relieved that at least they have released some of their burden. 

As volunteers we felt privileged and appreciative of the life we have. Some of us have decided to help some of the kids do their homework on a regular basis, others are working to share their stories and to lobby the government to register the refugees to sit national exams. 

I am always motivated by the phrase “poverty somewhere is poverty everywhere”.

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