Meet Emilienne. She's 12 years old. She speaks so softly that you sometimes have to come in closer to her to hear what she's saying. Emilienne is fastidiously clean, taking great care of her few clothes, carefully smoothing out the blue plastic flooring in the three square metre tent she, her mother and her four sisters live in before she sits down. Alongside being quite reserved in these ways, Emilienne is also quite a jolly person, and is often sporting a very noticeable smile. But not far beneath that exterior, this young girl contends with many troubles.
They have no idea if, or when, they will be able to go home.
Emilienne is a refugee. Along with her mother, Jeanine, her father, four brothers and a sister, she lives in a newly-constructed refugee camp – Mahama – in Kirehe District, in the Eastern Province of Rwanda. Her family was one of the first to arrive from Burundi, which they fled following the flaring of old cultural divisions amid the latest national elections. They have no idea if, or when, they will be able to go home. Since early April, 2015, nearly 30,000 people have fled from Burundi to neighbouring Rwanda, Now 23,700 of them, mostly women and children, are living in the Mahama Refugee Camp.
Emilienne has had to leave behind all the things that made her life good and happy. She is missing her best friend Devine, 13, who she believes may have fled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo with her family. She is no longer in school, where she was doing very well and working hard to follow her dream of becoming a doctor. Her mother, Jeanine, says that Emilienne has always been a very neat girl. “I wonder if she will be able to maintain that hygiene with the kind of conditions in this camp,” says Jeanine. And she may never learn where the older of her two brothers is, who was lost in the scrum of refugees entering the new camp. “We were separated from my elder son Michael. He was faster and went with a group of people that was ahead of us. He might have thought that we were behind them, but we moved slowly given the fact that among the children that I had, were young ones – Emilienne, and her young sisters Joyeuse, eight, and Eriazel, five. They were tired and thirsty, we had to stop to sit several times for them to rest,” she recalls.
She is no longer in school, where she was doing very well and working hard to follow her dream of becoming a doctor.
Emilienne, Jeanine, Joyeuse, Eriazel and Michael have had to leave their home, community, schools, family livestock and land, their livelihood and all their possessions in Kirundo Province in the northern part of Burundi. Together with the children's father, they walked through the harsh Burundian bush to escape; they walked together for several days, until they reached the Rwandan border. There, they were received by UNHCR and the Rwandan government.
Amid the chaos of life in a refugee camp, Emilienne still has her dream of becoming a doctor. She misses her home and no day goes by without her thinking about her lost friends. “I miss my best friend Devine, my school and my neighbours. Life was much better back at home. We went to school, we had enough and good food grown from my parent’s gardens and two cows that provided milk every day,” she remembers.
Back in Burundi, Emilienne’s family lived in a three-roomed house made of clay bricks, roofed with old but strong corrugated iron sheets. It was a comfortable home. “I and my younger sister had our own room, my brothers also had their own room, even our parents,” she recalls.
She misses her home and no day goes by without her thinking about her lost friends.
Jeanine had been working hard to make ends meet. “I was a farmer. I grew a variety of crops on three hectares of land. During rainy seasons, I even got extra to sell and the money I got out of farming paid school fees for my children. I never got a chance to continue with my own education after primary school, but I was determined to give my children the education I never had. Unfortunately, here we are. Refugees in a foreign country,” she says.
Life at the camp
Emilienne's family was among the very first to arrive at Mahama camp. “It was like a nightmare to us. They showed us a tent, too small for even two people. That small tent was supposed to be our new home. I, my husband and six children. The floor was covered with a plastic mat. We had no mattress, only a few blankets that we received on arrival. I kept on wondering how we would fit in that small space. I saw hundreds of small tents in the middle of nowhere, public pit latrines and bathrooms built out of plastic sheeting. It was our first time living in a camp. I still wonder if I will ever get used to it. What keeps me going is the feeling that my family is safe,’’ she says.
"I was determined to give my children the education I never had. Unfortunately, here we are. Refugees in a foreign country.”
Emilienne says that the tents are too cold during the night and too hot during the day. “We get no rest inside the tent during the day. It is too hot. We just move around looking for shadows under trees,” she says. Her mother considers the idleness and free movement of children, especially girls, a threat to their well-being.
“As parents, we are worried that this redundancy can expose our children to sexual abuse,” she says.
Jeanine has so much to worry about. The size of the tent has forced her to occasionally send some of the children to neighbours with few household members. This leaves her worried about their safety. From the outside, the tents look big enough to accommodate a small household. But the reality is that each tent is designed to accommodate two households. Inside the tent is a plastic curtain that separates the space between the two households, existing inside three square metres per household.
"Sometimes I feed them on only beans for days as they are unable to eat maize. Sometimes they cry because they're so hungry."
Her children, especially the young ones, refuse the only food provided at the camp, maize and beans. “We have no food supplements for the younger children. Sometimes I feed them on only beans for days as they are unable to eat maize. Sometimes they cry because they're so hungry,” she says.
She is very concerned about her children’s futures and dreams, especially Emilienne, who was doing so well in primary school back home. “I’m worried about my children’s future; their health, education and safety.” she says.
Her dream to see her children complete school is – for now, and perhaps for ever - gone, her home, her domestic animals left behind. She still hopes one of the neighbours might have been sympathetic enough to take care of them. Wondering where Michael is - all these thoughts keep Jeanine extremely troubled.
“Every day I ask my mother when we can go home."
Emilienne says that she prays every day for peace and political stability in her country. “Every day I ask my mother when we can go home. She always tells me we can’t go back unless there is political stability and peace. I pray every morning and evening before I sleep for peace back home. I want to go back to school, meet my friends, mostly my best friend Devine. I’m sure God will answer my prayer one day,” she says.
World Vision Rwanda is providing water sanitation and hygiene facilities at the refugee camp, helping to ensure each person is able to access 17 litres of water per day. Our work also includes constructing toilets, hand washing facilities and showers and ensuring they are kept clean. World Vision is also training a group of refugees to work as ‘hygiene promoters’ to teach others how to maintain the best hygiene practices in their new surroundings. World Vision has also handed out potties to households with children under the age of five.