World Refugee Day: CAR refugees in urban Congo: potential counter voices?

Co-author: Catherina Wilson, PhD researcher in the project ‘Connecting in Times of Duress’,

Catherina meeting refugee students from CAR.

Catherina meeting refugee students from CAR.

Metropolitan Urban Congo. The city attracts people – this is almost a law, unescapable. Yet a rule that one cannot really understand for the African city, that is often disorganized, has lots of filth, unhealthy living conditions, but still. In this respect Kinshasa, the capital of DR Congo, beats all cities: 13 million people try to make a living in a town where electricity is a blessing and a curse, because the way it operates is lethal. The electricity cables hanging above the head of the ordinary citizen, who is simply drinking a beer, walking to the market or transporting petrol on a motor bike. Each of these activities can end in a disaster if the cables fall, the cabin explodes or if rain conduces electricity to where it should not go and electrocutes a person. In this 13 million city that expands over a large territory, transport is necessary to bring workers to their work, market women to their markets, and citizens to the city centre to settle bills and other official papers. The roads are often bumpy, transport is uncomfortable and relatively expensive. Walking is too often the only option, even though the dirty roads, where pools of stagnant water that generates malaria and the waste of the city assembles, provoke accidents and produce illness. Nevertheless, the city attracts people who want to make something of their lives. For youth, Kinshasa is an opportunity to earn money, to escape the unbearable boredom of rural life, to a more exciting being, to be connected to other worlds, arousing both curiosity and anxieties. The city is a concentration of connectivity, of markets and business, and those who wish, try to (re)create their life in the city – misery being only a side effect.

UNHCR camp near Libenge.

UNHCR camp near the town Libenge.

Student refugees
In DR Congo motivations of movement are often related to political conflict. In the last year, Kinshasa has received hundreds of Central African refugees fleeing the clashes between the government and rebel groups from the North. These groups have instigated a bloodstained conflict that continues today in Bangui and elsewhere in the Central African Republic. Mediation for this specific group of refugees in Kinshasa is done by the Commission Nationale pour les Réfugiés (CNR, the National Commission for Refugees) and the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR. Hence we discuss here urban refugees, who fled Bangui, the capital of the CAR, about a year ago, through refugee camps along the CAR-Congo border, via impossible roads and waterways to Kinshasa. A journey that took them up to two months. The youth we present here are the urban educated, often from a relatively wealthy and middle class background; students that never had the idea that the refugee status would fall upon them one day. Without disregarding their hardships as a refugee, the horrible things they must have witnessed in CAR/Bangui, their struggle with the circus of UNHCR, all of these experiences will become an ineffaceable part of their identities and carve out a future that neither they nor their parents had foreseen, but: a future nevertheless. This moment in CAR-politics will prove to be a vital conjunction for the youth of Bangui. And it might plant a seed to grow counter voices.

UNHCR selection of 50 ‘chosen’ ones
The first thing the student refugees were confronted with after their long journey was the way in which the CNR & UNHCR in Kinshasa interpreted refugee assistance: in order to receive assistance they had to go back to the refugee camps in the North of Congo; urban refugees have no clear rights. One of the leading figures in the refugee community and a former student association’s leader commented: ‘In the camps there is nothing that can help us further. No possibility to follow higher education and no way to find a small job. So for us it is no option to return to the camps’. He had better expectations for Kinshasa. They did not make the long journey – for which they sold their phones and laptops – to simply return to that despondency.
During the year they have been in Kinshasa, the struggle with the UNHCR and the NCR has been harsh. On arrival they were acknowledged as refugees, but instead of helping their cause forward, it brought them into an impossible fight. The first encounter was when they had to move out of the house that was given to them, without any alternative. Their protest against this decision was broken by the police who even tortured some of the refugees to such a level that they have become handicapped, also as a consequence of the bad treatment they received in the hospital. They feel that their rights are completely crushed. The battle continued until June 6, when the UNHCR finally gave them an answer: unfortunately, less favourable than they had hoped for. The refugees will not be given the opportunity to go to school or university, and most will have to create their own life. The UNHCR did however select 50 of them who are confined to a ‘gift’ of 650 dollar that should help them start a new life. Is this an arbitrary ‘divide and rule’ policy? The leader of the refugee association (that was created with the help of the UNHCR), one of the 50 chosen ones, told us they would not accept this offer and insist on furthering their struggle. On 20 June, World Refugee Day, they will make themselves heard again.

Remembering Bangui.

Remembering Bangui.

Future intellectuals of their country
In the meantime the struggle to survive and further their dreams continues: ‘After all, we are the future intellectuals of our country ’. Another refugee young man exclaims: ‘Why do they not see that we are the future, why is there no regulation to make us the people we want to become?’ Integration in Kinshasa is difficult. The refugees are real foreigners and feel the difference with their home town every day. In their memories, life in CAR was so much better; in terms of transport: the taxis are recognizable, ‘Here you have to guess’, and the food was so abundant, ‘Here food is difficult and expensive’, and ‘We do not speak Lingala’ (the lingua franca in Kinshasa) and: ‘It is difficult to find a job here’. However, when we walk through the neighborhood where the refugees were first housed (but where they moved out), it becomes clear that the Kinois do not entirely reject them. Church women help the young men to find food. The girls of the neighbourhood were fond of these newcomers (as the first baby girl born out of a union between a girl from Kinshasa and a CAR refugee attests). The student refugees do stop at several houses to greet people, who have helped them and became their friends.

Photo: Mirjam de Bruijn

‘Photo-minute’, refugee-photographer who prints pictures instantly.

Some of the refugee students do find their way in Kinshasa and four of them live together in a simple two-room studio, coated with some plastic chairs, a small cupboard with some kitchen utensils, a sleeping room with two mattresses on the floor under a mosquito net, some books and lots of clothing, because even in refuge, one needs to be dressed well – even though refugees, in the eyes of the UNHCR at least, are not supposed to be well-dressed. The first of the students now works as ‘photo-minute’. He was able to buy a camera and a small printer with money he made in Brazzaville by selling phone credit. He now walks along the bustling sidewalks of Kinshasa in order to make pictures that he prints instantly. He lives together with the secretary of the refugee committee who runs up and down the entire day visiting fellow refugees, listening to their complaints, organizing meetings and talking to the UNHCR/CNR. His brother is also in the house and helps the photographer. A fourth young man stays with them. He has a long history of illness, and should undergo heart surgery that cannot be paid for. During his stay in hospital he learned to sew bags out of beads and tries to make a living out of it. These students are thus fending for themselves and in the meanwhile learning new skills, in order to survive tough circumstances. ‘Yes, what we have learned is a real school’, another comments. They also become well informed about the working of politics, and the working of their societies in international contexts, which makes them even more dedicated to become who they want to become.

Determined to take up their lives
Two students are determined to cross over to Brazzaville in order to continue to Cameroon where they want to further their study. If necessary they will not travel with their refugee papers. The secretary continues fighting. His family may help him financially. The photographer is determined not to get stuck in this mess, but he cannot expect assistance from his siblings. He will take up life and fight his way. In metropolitan Kinshasa he might be able to make enough money to go back to university. The refugee world, the capricious behavior of the CNR and UNHCR, the urban environment, it will all become part of their identity, but will they ever become Kinois? These young men are at a crossroad: confronted with a metropolis and all its insanity and opportunities, confronted with the immobility of the refugee status, confronted with a fight for their lives without the protected environment of their parents’ home.

Compound in Kinshasa.

Compound in Kinshasa.

Seeds for new counter voices
But while these educated urban refugees experience the ups and downs of one of Africa’s biggest cities and the impossibility of being a refugee in it, they are also freed from the parental jug and free to become who they want to be, leading them to be more articulated and explicit, and inviting them to give their lives a new turn. Just like the Chadian youth comes to Bangui ‘pour se défouler’ (to go on a spree), the Central African urban refugees in Kinshasa too can become someone else. The secretary’s life here has an added value in Kinshasa. Of course he was active in Bangui before the crisis, but his motivation in Kinshasa is somehow different, as it hurts him to see his compatriots suffer and nobody caring about it. By writing letters to the CNR, and visiting his fellow refugees, he knows their problems, their whereabouts. He too tries to fight injustice, and his life takes a new course. These new forms of anger and the political activities that arise from it may indeed mean a ‘new direction in life’ potentially planting the seed for a new, fresh counter voice.