Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Mpaka Refugee Camp

January 12th, 2012

As the New Year begins so do some new projects in my community.  This week I have met with several committees at the refugee camp here in my community.  We (Addy, Ryan, and I) have decided to teach a weekly HIV/AIDS education class and a weekly English class for the camp residents, as well as plan a massive cleaning campaign to be held in the future that will focus on keeping the camp tidy as well as sanitation, hygiene, and safety.

Its been a lot to think about but I am excited to become really busy.  Today we had a meeting with the youth committee and the camp committee.  The leader of the Youth Committee is a 26 year old man nicknamed Amnesty who is from Somalia.  He I think is going be a very crucial part to the success at the camp.  Within the 1.5 days between our first meeting and our meeting today he managed to compile a list 70 camp residents interested in our classes.  He also organized our meeting today bringing together people from all different areas of the camp.

There were about 20-25 people at this meeting, which to date, is the largest meeting ever gathered during my service for the sole purpose to talk about a project.  We started by introducing our names and why we were there.  Peace Corps prepares you for one language barrier, but try six.  We had people there representing Swaziland, Somalia, Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi.  Despite their native languages they also speak French, Italian, Swahili, and thankfully English.  With the help of many English-speaking refugees serving as translators we got everyone introduced.  About halfway through one man made the comment that he is thankful we are all here, working together, as a family.  I really liked this comments because not only are there extreme language and cultural differences that separate all of us, but there is also religion.  Christian, Muslim, Traditional, it’s a giant mix.  The camp also hosts refugees from Mozambique, Uganda, Ethiopia, and Zimbabwe that I know of.  I guess the one thing that we do all have in common is not being Swazi.  We can all bond on the fact that we are all separated from our own countries (although us Americans it was by choice not force) trying to make a life in Swaziland. 

We had a really good meeting filled with two-way conversation and what I hope is a sparked desire to work together.  We ended with a resident guided tour of the camp.  Some of the residents let us see inside their homes.  The camp housing is giant brick buildings that are divided into “houses.”  Residents are required to build any dividing walls and furnish their space.  Most of the refugees are here for years so they have really been able to set up functional homes with separate sleeping, living, and cooking areas.  It was humbling to see how they live; makes me think twice about complaining about my next bucket bath or pit latrine experience.  The “bathrooms” at the camp aren’t even accessible, weeds have over grown and made it impossible to get to them, so residents relieve themselves wherever and in plastic bags that just get thrown outside.  The cleaning campaign is going to be a real great benefit to the quality of living at the camp. 

Some of the refugees have shared parts of their stories.  I hope to hear more.  They are sad; many of these refugees are young adults who had the fortune to be sent away by their parents to escape whatever they faced in their home countries.  They talk of leaving, going to some other camps just to be chased out by Xenophobia (fear of foreigners), until finally landing in Swaziland.  They say they will go back someday, hopefully with skills that will help their families live better lives.  I guess that’s where I come in.

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