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Settling Tanzania’s refugees

Refugees cooking in a camp/AFP

Refugees cooking in a camp/AFP

Tanzania, Feb 5 – In a small windowless room in the far west of Tanzania, 23-year old Paskazia Mwenebato sorts through a pile of lentils, dreaming of a life outside a refugee camp.

In Nyarugusu, Tanzania’s last major refugee camp, the government and United Nations are trying to end a rootless life for generations of people living — and many born — in exile.

In October, Tanzania said it was granting citizenship to some 200,000 refugees from neighbouring Burundi, a move hailed by the UN refugee agency UNHCR as “unprecedented”.

But many in Nyarugusu dream of a new life abroad, with around 30,000 of the total 57,000 population due to leave over the next five years.

Mwenebato, born in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, was swept up in the country’s civil war, fleeing with her family when she was five years old.

Nyarugusu, close to the shared border, has been her home ever since. She doesn’t remember life before the camp where her daughter was born and has just started kindergarten.

With eastern DR Congo still suffering chronic insecurity Mwenebato says she will not return, despite the struggle of life as a refugee.

“When I live in safety and at peace, I don’t think I’ll worry about anything. Obviously people are never totally free from problems, but I’ll find a way to tackle them,” she said.

“But if I live in a place full of violence, I can’t.”

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– Generations in exile –

Nyarugusu’s existence is the result of the persistent regional conflict in DR Congo, where more than five million people have been killed in the last two decades.

It is more like a town than a refugee camp.

Like many other rural settlements, residents grow crops in their gardens and keep livestock, study and start small businesses, they play music in bands and football in the evening, raise families and send their children to school. People are born and buried here.

But the camp also has its problems.

Rape is common, children rarely complete even primary education, resources are strained and services limited — queues for basic necessities like soap and flour are always long, and food is always in short supply — adults face few job prospects and many restrictions.

“People have lived within a rather narrow perimeter for many years without the possibility of full freedom of movement,” said Joyce Mends Cole of UNHCR.

“For people who would like to live out their lives with greater potential, it’s not a situation that we’re happy about. That’s why we’re working so hard to try to find solutions to this protracted situation.”

Uwimana Domatha, 32, has been a refugee her entire life.

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Both of her parents were killed during one of Burundi’s bouts of ethnic violence. She fled to Rwanda a year before the 1994 genocide and then escaped again, to Tanzania, where she met and married a fellow Burundian refugee and war orphan.

Now she is looking forward to resettlement in Canada.

“I am very happy that I am finally leaving behind this refugee life,” said Domatha. “I believe where I am going I will have a good life, and raise my children well and live well with my husband.”

Resettlement abroad is a dream, but for Domatha’s 14-year-old son, Niyonzima Frate, the prospect of leaving everything he knows is daunting.

“I have lived here a long time and made friends,” Frate said. “I’m not sure if I will see them again because I’m going so far away.”

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