What I Learned: In a Congolese Refugee Camp

This post is part of a series on learning from diversity called What I Learned. To contribute, contact Rachel.

Today’s What I Learned post comes from Jen Bradbury, writing about a Congolese refugee camp in western Rwanda.


Ask me to describe a refugee camp and I’ll start with the smell.

It’s the smell of far too many people living in far too small a space, without adequate sewage or opportunities to bathe. The smell is pungent and overwhelming. One whiff makes you want to run for the safety of your jeep, where you can roll up the windows, turn on the air conditioning, and receive a brief respite from a smell that’s so strong it makes you gag.

The smell speaks to the deplorable condition of life in a refugee camp – a place where people forced to flee their homeland for fear of their lives seek safety in a country that’s not their own.

I first visited a refugee camp in 2011 in western Rwanda. There, ~20,000 Congolese refugees live in Kiziba Refugee Camp. Many have done so for more than a decade. Though they can look across Lake Kivu and see their homeland, they know they cannot return there. To do so would mean being killed.

Despite this, refugees do not want our pity; They want our friendship. They are some of the most resilient and capable people I’ve ever had the privilege of meeting. From them, I’ve learned much, including the following six things.

  1. Poverty doesn’t mean you’re incapable. Far too often, we stereotype the poor. We think those who are poor are lazy people unable to solve their own problems. In actuality, my time in Kiziba taught me the opposite. Poverty doesn’t mean you’re incapable; It simply means you you have little or no money, goods, or means of support. In Kiziba, I met people living in extreme poverty who are incredibly capable. I witnessed their creativity, in the form of tools made with rudimentary supplies in order to better their lives. I saw visionary leadership as young people identified problems and found out-of-the-box solutions to them.
  1. Don’t do something someone can do for themselves. We rob people of their dignity and inherent sense of worth when we do what they can do for themselves. With that in mind, one of the best ways we can help people is by partnering with them. Aside from meeting physical needs, effective partnerships foster relationships, which meet another very real need for all involved. While in Kiziba, one example of an effective partnership I saw was between JCM (a group in the camp for refugee youth) and International Teams Rwanda. JCM realized that if they had a generator they could provide jobs for refugees in Kiziba that would provide them with a source of extra income, which they could then use to supplement their meager food rations from the United Nations. A generator would also enable them to provide much needed services to people in the camp. Knowing this, International Teams Rwanda gave JCM a generator, which they then used to create two businesses: A cell-phone charging station and a hair salon. International Teams partnered with JCM so as to allow them to solve the problems facing the camp. cell phone charging station
  1. Protect the vulnerable. At first glance, it seems that everyone living in a refugee camp is vulnerable. In many ways, they are. Yet, once you talk to refugees, it quickly becomes apparent that to them, two populations are particularly vulnerable: The elderly and the young. Those in the camp are committed to protecting these populations. For example, JCM runs a community garden and gives the produce to the elderly and the young. Even though every person in the camp could use additional food, those who have more are committed to serving the least of these.jcm garden
  1. Practice hospitality. Refugees in Kiziba live in mud and stick houses, covered by a UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) tarp. They’re smaller than many of the bathrooms found in the houses in my American community. Houses in Kiziba are typically 2-3 rooms: A common area plus one or two bedrooms. With no electricity, they’re dark even during the day. In many ways, they seem inhospitable. And yet, they’re not. Time and time again, refugees invited me into their home in Kiziba, saying, “You are welcome here.” Months later, when a refugee friend from Kiziba was resettled in the United States, he again flung open the door to his modest apartment, invited me in, and said, “You are welcome here.” As it turns out, hospitality is not being invited into a perfect house; It’s being invited to share the imperfect, messy realities of our lives with another person.
  1. Stories matter. Refugees often have no voice. They’ve faced severe persecution in their homeland and yet they’ve been largely ignored by the international community. Even so, their stories are powerful. Listening to them tell of their flight from their homeland honors those who didn’t survive and reminds them of El Roi – the God who sees, even when the rest of the world does not.
  1. There is always hope. It seems improbable that someone living in the squalor of a refugee camp for more than a decade would have hope. Yet, refugees do. During my time in Kiziba, I’d routinely ask refugees, “Where do you find hope?” or “What do you hope for?” What I heard is that despite the 20 year war that still rages in the Congo, refugees hope for peace. They believe theirs is the most beautiful country in the world and that God cares deeply for it and for them. Through it all, they find hope in Jesus, who sustains them.

To be sure, I will never forget the stench of Kiziba… But I will also never forget the six lessons that the refugees living there taught me.

jen bradburyJen Bradbury (@ymjen) is a career youth worker who currently serves as the Youth Director at Faith Lutheran Church in Glen Ellyn, IL. Her writing has appeared in The Christian Century, Youth Worker Journal, and Immerse. She’s also the author of the forthcoming book, The Jesus Gap and a frequent blogger at ymjen.com