I was still living in the refugee camp in Swaziland when, on the night of October 8, 2014, I woke up to high pitched screams and hysterical, distressed cries of three women—two of whom I would soon learn were my teen peers. It was around 4.30 a.m. I seemed to hear sounds of burning. I thought I was dreaming; nightmares are the norm in refugee settings. All sounds seemed too fresh and too familiar. Then a commotion started with people waking up, shouting and calling for help, others cussing the camp administration. It wasn’t a dream, it was a real-life nightmare. A tent owned by a family of 6 had been set ablaze in that early morning. A boy’s life was lost and another young girl survived but was burnt beyond recognition. This tragedy had stemmed from ongoing conflicts between different nationalities that lived in the refugee camp. Just 5 years before, my family had gone through a similar trauma—a situation that would be the last blow to send us out of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
This happened almost a year and six months after I had founded a youth club in the refugee camp to unite the youth and prevent such tragedies. It re-enforced my strong desire to do . . . something. Now, I advocate for the rights of refugees, particularly the youth, and the rights of minorities in general. A collection of these tragic experiences inspire me to be an agent of change.
The UNHCR estimates there are almost 90 million forcibly displaced peoples around the world, with more than 27.1 million having been granted refugee status. Each of these individuals has their own stories of trauma and struggles. When we are not fighting for the wellbeing of our families and refugee communities, we are fighting for our survival. Each of us, having picked up a few belongings and lost our homes, is an agent of change.
People in relatively peaceful countries like Canada are born with enormous privileges, and that comes with power. If you are one of them, you have a choice to be kind and to treat humans like humans regardless of whether you know and understand their struggle or not. You can decide to engage in advocacy work or meaningful community-inspired activism that has the capacity to transform lives: from volunteering in refugee detention centres and immigrant serving organizations to hiring refugee professionals, or even sponsoring refugee youth to study and change the course of their destiny. But even with that kind of power and privilege, the extent of societal and individual desensitization or apathy towards refugees and migrants is appalling. Below is another personal encounter.
I was transiting through South Africa in the summer of 2019, coming from a conference in Victoria, BC, with a stopover at Yale University in the U.S. I had just spent three weeks teaching four courses on the refugee experience to high school students from all over the world during the Yale Young Global Scholars program. At 5 a.m in the morning, while exiting the O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, a lady nearly refused to give me a transit stamp. I had all the required documents. I needed two weeks in South Africa to visit some friends before heading to Swaziland—which should have been automatic because of bilateral agreements between the two countries. Except . . . I was a refugee, using a refugee travel document. None of my well documented travel history seemed to matter to her: the Schengen, Canadian, or U.S. visas stared at her as she flipped through the pages of my travel document. When she realized I was well within my rights to travel and she had no choice but to let me go—and possibly that I was holding back the line—she looked at me, disgusted, and said “people like you should never be allowed to travel.” She stamped my travel document and gave me 24hrs to be out of the South African soil.
You see, this woman made a choice to express her xenophobia, to mistreat, to hate just because of a label I have been given by my fateful situation. What choices do you make in your day-to-day life and work, especially in contextual encounters with refugees?