Mireille Twayigira was three years old when her father was killed in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, forcing her family to flee the country. By the time she reached a refugee camp in Malawi, her sister, mother, and grandmother had died from disease or exhaustion. She settled at Dzaleka Refugee Camp in Malawi and enrolled in schools run by the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS). She won a scholarship to study medicine in China. After graduating from medical school, she returned to Dzaleka, where she now serves refugeess as a Refugee Education Advocate for JRS. Lean more here about her upcoming speaking engagements on the East Coast.
What was it like to grow up constantly in movement and in refugee camps?
For me it was it was hard. When you’re on the move, you don’t have your own house, you don’t have your own farm where you can’t go in the backyard and pick some fruits. You’re constantly in need. Being on the move teaches you to be able to use whatever you have. In short, it teaches you to survive. You find yourself doing unthinkable things; eating things you would never thought you’d have eaten; doing things to survive that you would never have done otherwise.
It is especially hard for a kid. You’re always moving, you don’t know why, you don’t know what is happening. You want food when you want it, but it’s not there. But I had to survive. So, one day passed, and I would say, “Woo, I’m alive.” Next day, “I’m alive.” Next day, “I’m alive.” You just live to see the next day.
As I grew up, I became bitter because it was a tragic life. It was a life where there was nothing good. Even living in the refugee camp in Malawi, although it was peaceful, and I could play with kids, I knew even as a teenager that there was just something tragic about my life. But in the end, I got to know God and that helped me a lot in overcoming everything.
How did you get to know God?
When I was growing up in the camp, I felt so unloveable. The people who left me: my mom, my dad, my sister, they left me of course because they died. But as a child, I felt as though they were leaving me because they didn’t love me. Love was something I didn’t think would be for me. But God sent people around me to love on me and this really changed everything I would say.
There was a lady who helped my grandfather and I come from refugee camp in Maheba to Lusaka. She didn’t have much, but she provided for us to go to Lusaka and for me to be able to go to school. And there was JRS who built and was running the school. God was loving me through all these people.
When I went to China, I met these wonderful people and made many friends at Church who really changed the way I viewed my life. They loved me for who I am and showed me that there is a purpose in life. I overcame the bitterness by seeing that I have a reason to live, if not for me, for others who would see my life and see something positive.
So, I saw the people around me whom God was using to love on me. People who had no reason to, but they did. I saw all that as love, and God is love. Even though I had gone through so much and had lost everything, God remained a God of Love. God didn’t stop being God just because I was going through all of that. The thing that changed me the most was knowing the love of God, knowing that God loves me and sent people to love me.
Many people are unsure of ways to contribute to solving the refugee crisis. What can they do?
There is a lot that can be done. But first of all, I think the way to start is to learn about refugees. Pick up a book and just learn. Try to find the sources that really describe refugees as they are. There are many organizations which are already established for refugees. Finding which organizations to support is helpful. You don’t need to change the situation or try to come up with a solution by yourself. Solutions have already been found and people are there working towards solutions, and they need support.
Can you talk about the people who live at the Dzaleka Refugee Camp and the work of JRS there?
The majority of people in Dzaleka are from the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi. When I came to the camp in 2000 there weren’t even 10,000 people. Today there are close to 40,000 in a camp that was designed for 6,000. The camp has one primary and one secondary school. In a class of eighth graders there are about 300 students and in one classroom, there are about 88 students. We have very few resources. Only 10% of the secondary school age population in Dzaleka is enrolled. You can imagine the gap.
JRS runs all the education programs which includes the primary school, the secondary school and some post-secondary training which involves English, computer, and a few other courses just for training people for various skills. The majority of people who work in the schools are refugees. We have some Malawians as well and a few international volunteers. JRS also runs the psychosocial department which is mostly counseling and following up on a few cases of people who might need psychosocial support.
They also run livelihood projects, such as women’s weaving programs, bag making for selling, and run some pastoral care programs for the refugees. But the biggest program is education.
What is life like in Dzaleka and what are the hopes of the people who live there?
The people here depend on the monthly rations. Each month a food program provides something, but it is not fancy stuff like rice. It is mostly maize and beans. A few people have managed to start small businesses like farming or other sorts of small businesses. There are few resettlement programs for the most vulnerable people to be taken to America or Australia. But this is a very small percentage of the population. Otherwise there is no other hope for leaving, other than if Malawi decided to integrate them, which I don’t know if there are any hopes for that.
For the young people, the hope of leaving the camp is through getting good grades and getting scholarships to university. Even when I was growing up, and even today this remains the only hope of ever leaving the camp and pursuing their dreams.
Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Yes. Most people, when they think of the refugee crisis, they think of Europe. But the real crisis is actually in the countries that are hosting the majority of refugees; countries like Turkey, Uganda, Bangladesh. This is where the biggest burden is, and these countries need all the support that they can get from the international community to be able to sustain both their own people and also the influx of the refugees.
Of course, there refugees who need resettlement because they are very vulnerable. Some countries need to welcome refugees. But it’s also important to not forget to support the countries, who are hosting the majority of refugees.