Gihembe refugee camp is located on a small hill in Gicumbi District, Northern Province. The camp currently is a home to about 20,000 refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo who fled political turmoil in their country in 1997.
Compared with the other refugee camps in the country, such as Kiziba in Karongi District, Gihembe is somewhat better organised, in terms of infrastructure and the houses the refugees live in.
Gihembe is divided into twelve villages.
Inside the congested camp people are constantly on the move, looking for money to buy household items they need such as clothes, shoes and food. The camp residents are often seen, travelling down the hill, to offer their services to the people living in the surrounding area.
The refugees, who attended the World Refugee Day celebrations on the 20th of this month, included smartly dressed men in suits, women in traditional attire and bare-footed children in school uniforms.
Despite the joint efforts of the United Nation High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Rwandan Government to make the refugees’ living conditions as comfortable as possible, the major issue that they complain about is the lack of schools for their children.
Presently, there is only one secondary school in the camp. This school, called ‘Hope’, unfortunately operates without the permission of the Ministry of Education. The camp authorities have asked the government to recognise it, saying unless that happens, the community will not be able to trust its curricula.
The tiny classrooms were built using wood, mud and UNHRC plastic sheeting. Despite all the challenges they face, the school authorities are determined to continue providing services to the children even as they don’t earn a salary.
“It’s hard but we try. We are just volunteering, we don’t get any salary apart from some little assistance,” says history teacher Deo Kaneza.
Inside the classes, the students, sitting on benches, are smartly dressed in white and black uniforms but the classroom floors swirl with dust. The lack of reading material, and educational tools such as computers means that educating the children is a huge challenge.
“I have only three note books to use instead of the dozen that senior four students require. I have nowhere to write my notes”, Mapendo Byiringiro, said. He is a senior four student doing History, Economics and Geography (HEG) at Hope Secondary School.
He says when the books fill with notes he’s forced to look for odd jobs outside the camp in order to buy more books.
Because the school isn’t accredited or adequately supported, most of the students aren’t able to go to university. As a result, when they complete Senior Six, they either become teachers at the same school, or teach their parents how to read and write.
Baudain Ntabaresya, the head of the school, says Government should intervene and accredit their school. “It’s not formal; we need the Ministry of Education to accredit our operations”.
When the time for national examinations comes around, students are forced to go to neighbouring private schools to sit for their exams, paying Rwf 15,000 each for the privilege. Last year, out of the 32 refugee students who sat senior six exams, two obtained government scholarship for university.
The American Refugee Committee (ARC) is working alongside the UNHCR in supporting both financial and technical training in different fields, such as tailoring, hair dressing, among others.
Daphroza Uwineza and her colleagues trained in hair dressing. She says she can earn up to 1000 Francs a day.
“We survive on our work. However, we have a challenge of inadequate electricity which hinders my business”, she complained. The money she earns from her small business is able to cater for her family needs.
Jean Claude Rwahama, the Director of Refugee Affairs in the Ministry of Disaster Management and Refugee Affairs, assured the Congolese refugees that the Government will continue to advocate for better living conditions in Gihembe.
“We appreciate whatever you’re doing to ensure a better life for yourselves. We know your problems and we shall continue working closely with all our partners to ensure your problems are solved,” he promised while addressing the residents during the World Refugee Day celebrations.
Rwanda today hosts about 55,000 Congolese, including those who have fled the current political turmoil in eastern Congo over the last two months.