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Thursday, June 23, 2011

Hail to the courageous refugees of the world

It takes courage to be a refugee. Just another catchword? Absolutely not. It is not quite clear to the average person but someone who has had the distinguished honour of visiting the existing refugee camps in the country including the Old Settlements and had the chance to see and mingle with the people there, you get to understand and appreciate that it does indeed take courage, and loads of it for the matter, to be refugee.

There are exactly 38,076 Burundi refugees currently residing in the country, 60,437 from the Democratic Republic of Congo and 260 of other nationalities. Those living in the settlements include 9,482 Burundi refugees, 162,256 that have been naturalised, 1,490 Somali refugees and 1,423 Somalis that have been naturalised while 22,376 Burundi refugees are residing in villages.

I recently had the privilege to visit a number of settlements and refugee camp in Nyarugusu, Kasulu district in Kigoma regions thanks to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Dar es Salaam who organised a press mission last week. I learnt what exactly it meant to have courage to be a refugee.

This statement doesn’t only include the courage to walk thousands of kilometres fleeing for your life after ethnic violence drove these people out of their country but also to stay for over 40 years in an ‘alien’ country, be enclosed in one area where you have to seek permission whenever you want to leave the premises.

Its also refers to being born out of your country, see yourself grow, get educated, marry and have children without having the chance to see where your parents came from, without seeing the other members of your blood line, that takes courage.

The government of Tanzania seeing this and for other security reasons very boldly gave the Burundi refugees a choice, for those who wanted to return to their country after peace had prevailed were voluntarily allowed to return and for those who chose to stay, they were naturalised, meaning that they were offered citizenship, 162, 256 of them chose the latter.

The Field Unit Ulyankulu Tabora Field Officer, Mr Belai Ghebre-egzabiher says that in the 24 years he has been working UNHCR, he had never come across such a unique gesture and that the government should be proud of itself for making such a humanitarian decision.

“This is the first time in the history of the UN for one country to naturalise people at this scale, it is not an easy undertaking. Naturalisation is done a lot of times but it rarely exceeds ten people, its also encouraging that the receiving districts that have been earmarked to receive these new Tanzanians are showing a very positive response,” he said.

For three days we visited the Ulyankulu old settlement, Mkindu village within the settlement, a secondary school in Urambo, Nyarugusu camp that houses DRC refugees and Mpanda district in Rukwa that has the Katumba camp and I particularly left there with huge memories of just how courageous refugees are.

Have you ever visited a place and after you leave, the memories stick to you superglue? Well, that happened to me when I first stepped into the premises of Katumba Secondary School in Mpanda.

Katumba was one of the three so-called "old settlements" inhabited by the 1972 Burundians. Similar notifications were simultaneously released in the two other settlements of Mishamo and Ulyankulu by senior Tanzanian immigration officials. The naturalized Burundians will now live among the general population.

Katumba camp has been shut down for a number of years now and the government in its relocation programme for the refugees is finalising its logistics to move the refugees to other parts of the country which means that the students currently at the school are the last bunch.
The Katumba Secondary School Headmaster, Mr Adrian Mwasalima informed that he has 650 students at the moment where 50 percent are new Tanzanians and that the major problem he faces is mixing the two cultures.

Mr Mwasalima claimed that the problem with the former refugee children was that they are not open and can be very secretive and at times unwilling to studying together with the ‘less serious’ Tanzanians.

“There are some issues we are seeing between the two particularly when hoisting the flag, the new Tanzanians are not respecting it as they claim that it isn’t theirs but through effective counseling, we hope to change this,” he said.

He said that involving the parents is changing this is proving to be fruitless largely because many of the parents tend to feel that they are being undermined. Katumba secondary school in spite of being in the wilderness of Mpanda district has been performing rather well in the number of passes where in 2004, it produced seven whooping Division Ones, nine Division Twos, 16 Division Threes, 38 Division Fours and only two fails.

Last year like many other schools in the country, it didn’t fair well but still managed to register one Division One, three Division Threes, 15 Division Fours and 15 fails. I have to admit that I was rather taken aback when I started interviewing the students about how they feel to be newly naturalised Tanzanians to learn that they can speak English with a lot of confidence and very reasonably fluent.

I learnt from both teachers and students that the issue of segregation amongst themselves is a little exaggerated and that their relations are rather good taking into consideration their circumstances and many don’t even regard each other as old or new Tanzania and how they speak such good English, well it is well enforced with a little environmental corporal punishment, lots of weeding the premises and a bit of digging, someone’s got to plough the fields if we are going to eat! Right?

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