Twenty two years ago, approximately 800,000 people were massacred in Rwanda in the span of a hundred days, creating a generation of refugees. A lost generation, who fled utter destruction of buildings, industries, schools, roads, homes and most of all their lives.
Twenty-two years later, Rwanda is a free country and the fastest growing economy in the giant continent of Africa. I wait on a beautiful Rwandan morning for the news to reach us regarding our visit to the Gihembe Refugee camp near Kigili, the capital city of Rwanda. Twenty-two years later and still around 100,000 people are stuck in these open-air prisons we call refugee camps. They wait with the hope that one day things will get better, one day they will live normal lives, one day they will have freedom and have the opportunity to excel.
As I stood there waiting, my mind painted different pictures of life at the camp, the pictures were not pretty and colorful. The colors were mostly grays and black. I wondered what my visit was going to be like, will I come back depressed? will the stories break me? will the camps be the darkest places on earth? All these questions and more were running through my mind, when the phone finally rang and we found out that we could visit the camp at 3pm that afternoon.
The victims of war can hold the keys to lasting peace, and it’s the refugees who can stop the cycle of violence.
After two hours of a beautiful scenic drive up the steep winding roads, we reached the camps. We were swamped and greeted by happy children who stopped their game of soccer and ran to us to see who we were and what we had for them. Boys were bold and the girls were shy as they giggled and tried to talk to us in the little English they knew. The boys proudly showed us their handmade soccer ball, made from discarded plastic bags, all tied up together into a perfect sphere. There were men all dressed up with their hats, black coats and carrying walking sticks. The women had beautiful patterns on their dresses which were brightly colored and hand-stitched at home. Everyone seemed happy to have us visit them and we were welcomed with smiles and hugs. The men tried to rescue us from the sea of children, by chasing them away with their walking sticks.
How strange? Just two hours back I had painted a picture so dark and so sad and now I could hardly remember that picture. I was taken by surprise, because I was actually filled with hope. To be a refugee means to have no hope, but when I saw the happy faces I could not believe how happy they were! But is that all we can do? Provide a little excitement with our visit? Don’t they deserve a better chance at life? How can we help them THRIVE? Is it possible that we can think of refugees as more than just temporary population centers, where people languish waiting for the worst to end. Instead, can we think of them as centers of excellence, where refugees can triumph over their trauma and train for the day where they can go home as agents of positive change and social transformation? That is what I wanted to see happen in these camps. To me, that was the only option.
As I walked through the camp, I fell in love with all the lovely little girls all so happy, so innocent. I wondered what a little refugee girl dreamt to become…do they have a future? For most of them, their school days were over even before it started, since there is no funding for a girl’s education. If any funding is available, it was the boys who had the opportunity to go to school first. How I wished I could say, “we will build you a school”, or “we will pay for your college education”. My heart broke as I looked at the little girl who wrapped her arms around me and kissed me. She should be, and she is, the future of Congo…but what a waste.
As we drove back that night, I could not stop thinking about how these kids were all at a tipping point in their life. A whole new generation was growing up in these camps, but being wasted instead of building and creating a bright new Congo. How I wished I had the power to change everything for every child.
Not investing in refugees is a huge missed opportunity. Leave them abandoned, they risk exploitation and abuse. Leave them unskilled and uneducated, and delay peace and prosperity in their countries. I believe, along with my team at Impact Hope, that how we treat the uprooted will shape the future of our world. The victims of war can hold the keys to lasting peace, and it’s the refugees who can stop the cycle of violence.
The stories from refugee camps are not the most exciting and joyful ones, but their stories don’t have to end that way. I believe the world is a good place and we can make a difference when we come together. Because together we can do what must be done.