I remember being sixteen, sitting in eleventh grade English watching Angelina Jolie’s Beyond Borders. You probably haven’t watched Beyond Borders. Wikipedia describes it as “a romantic-drama film about aid workers”, which was (much like real aid work) “critically and financially unsuccessful.”
Teenage Jacob wouldn’t have believed you if you told him that six years later, he would be the one in a white Land Cruiser* driving down a similarly dusty road to Dzaleka refugee camp.
It takes about 40 minutes to get to the camp from Lilongwe. Crammed into the back of the truck were a Zambian Jesuit Father, three UK-based researchers, an American project director, and a few Malawian staff members. If you had of made a joke about it being like the UN, they would have responded “No, that’s the building next door.”
After a fable about a dog, goat, and cow riding a minibus, I got some context about the camp:
Dzaleka, an abandoned prison, was established as a refugee camp in 1994 to deal with large numbers of refugees coming from Rwanda, Burundi, and Congo. Right now, there are about 22,000 asylum seekers, refugees, and economic migrants living in the camp.
Unlike Angelina Jolie, I was not there to bring truckloads of grain to starving masses. My friend Emmanuel had invited me to come and give a talk to his students. Emmanuel teaches English to a group of students who have been selected by WUSC to study in Canadian universities.
The students are based at the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) compound. When we arrived, we went around the JRS compound where we saw their offices, an adult education centre full of laptops where some refugees finish an online degree offered through Jesuit universities. While the camp is run by the UNHCR (UN High Commissioner for Refugees) all the education programs are run by JRS. As we walked through, we stopped to talk to just about everybody- apparently Emmanuel is a well known character- or maybe the community is just like that.
Introductions took long enough that we had to skip our chai and go straight to class. The classroom was inside a brick building- a Canadian flag and world map hung on the wall. Fifteen students crowded onto the wooden benches and tables. I introduced myself, and asked that they do the same. It was strikingly un-Malawian. French was more useful than Chichewa as I chatted with the students, all from central Africa.
I presented briefly about how growing in university requires reaching deep (knowing and acting on who you are) and branching out (leaving your comfort zone to take new opportunities). It took around twenty minutes. For the rest of the two hours, they asked questions:
“How do you decide what major to take?”
“What is dating like in university?”
“Can I skip first year chemistry?”
“Which schools should I apply to if I want to study business?”
“Do you get enough sleep?”
“Can you get a job and study?”
“How can I make friends?”
These were the questions that I asked before starting university. I looked at these “refugees” again. All of them had smartphones. Most were dressed more stylishly than me. Some were reserved and others obnoxious. We took selfies after class. They could have been college applicants from anywhere in the world.
And yet in other ways their lives seem almost incommensurably different than my own. After lunch (at the Somali restaurant in the “rich” part of camp), they gave me a tour. We passed the office where the Malawian government decides whether to grant asylum seekers refugee status. We passed a large warehouse where food is distributed.
“It used to be 14 kilos of maize per month, but there’s so many people and its been dry so they reduced it to 6”
“People receive food based on family size. It starts at 23 at the beginning of the month and goes down to singles.”
We kept going, passing streetlights that no longer turn on and a borehole that recently broke down. They took pride in pointing out the camp’s single two-story building.
But at the same time this isn’t the refugee camp of your imagination. There are no tents. This is twenty thousand people who have been here for twenty years. It’s more like a town, complete with shops, markets, restaurants, bars, 66 churches and one mosque.
Halfway through the tour, we stopped outside a short mud house with thatched roof. “This is my house” Emmanuel announced. Earlier, Emmanuel had explained that he had got a full time contract coordinating part of a JRS project. He had been so moved by his time teaching these students that he decided that he wanted to live in the camp full time.
Who decides to move in to a refugee camp?
We finished the tour by the clinic, where a two rows of trees arched the path back to the JRS compound. “This is my favourite part of camp” Emmanuel announced, and walking with new friends in the cool shade, I had to agree.
We finished the day with a lesson on ‘Ethics’ from Father David, and I was once again blown away at the level of debate over reason vs. instinct and what “being good” meant.
On the way home, one of the JRS staff members started telling African fables. We learned not to be greedy (from the tortoise who fell from heaven and broke his shell), how to judge character (from the man who turned his cat into a daughter) and never to underestimate cleverness (from the rabbit who tricked the lizard). His ridiculous sound effects combined with (feigned) seriousness about each tale had us dying of laughter. The last story was “The story that doesn’t end” about a swarm of locusts who find a tiny hole in a granary. One goes in and gets a piece of maize….then the next…then the next…then the next…
Luckily we made it back to the office, because the story really wouldn’t have stopped. As I walked home, I reflected on how such deep pain and such vibrant hope coexisted so closely. I don’t want to sugarcoat the reality; life in the camp is difficult and these students carry heavy burdens. But in the midst of it all, we were able to share common fears and dreams.
At the end of the discussion on ethics, Father David asked each student how they wanted to be remembered when they died. Here’s how they responded:
“I want to be a remembered as a role model”
“Someone who tried his best”
“I want to leave a good story”
“An innovator who took the time to perfect”
“Someone who fought for justice”
“That I changed the life of even a single person”
You can read more of what the students at Dzaleka are writing here.
*Riding a white Land Cruiser with an NGO logo on the side was, embarrassingly, an item on my Malawi bucket list.
**30,000 based off of Citizenship and Immigration Canada estimates (2015) and the 12,000 Syrian refugees promised by the current government. It is a surprisingly hard number to nail down.