Burundian refugees prepare for voluntary return and give thanks for support received in Rwanda
As Burundian refugee Ndagijimana, his wife Beatrice and and three children prepare to leave on the journey back to Burundi after five years as refugees in Rwanda, they reflect on their lives in Mahama camp and the journey ahead
By Emily Fredenberg
Ndagijimana, 38, and his wife, Beatrice, 33, have lived as refugees in Mahama camp in Rwanda with their five children since August 2015. Back home in Burundi, they had a quiet life on a farm growing corn, beans, sorghum and cassava for the family to eat and even sold the surplus to make ends meet.
This ended however when instability and violence hit their village in northern Burundi in 2015, forcing Ndagijimana and Beatrice to make the difficult decision that the family should flee for safety to neighbouring Rwanda.
“Life completely changed for us when we arrived in Mahama camp [in Rwanda]. We were accustomed to our days being spent working on our family farm. As a refugee there are very limited job opportunities,” said Beatrice.
“We’ve felt as though we’ve spent the last five years simply waiting as we haven’t been able to find work and have relied entirely on the assistance we’ve received from WFP and other organizations to survive here,” she added.
“We are incredibly grateful for the food assistance we received from the United Nations World Food Programme throughout these very difficult years in our family’s life,” said Ndagijimana.
“We thank governments like the United States for ensuring funds for the programme, as we honestly wouldn’t have been able to cope without it.”
In July 2020, more than 300 Burundian refugees in Mahama camp addressed a letter to the Government of Burundi requesting to peacefully return home and expressing hope for lasting security under new President Evariste Ndayishimiye.
“We don’t want to be refugees forever — it is a very difficult life.”
In mid-August 2020, the governments of Rwanda and Burundi along with the UN refugee agency UNHCR agreed the practicalities for a peaceful return and reintegration process.
Burundian refugees in Rwanda began registering for their voluntary return. The first group of nearly 500 refugees left for Burundi in late August 2020, and as of mid-October nearly 3,000 had already voluntarily returned home.
“When the first group of refugees returned home, we deliberated: Is this our chance at last to return home peacefully?” said Ndagijimana.
“After several of our friends in Mahama camp safely returned to their villages in Burundi and sent back encouraging reports, Beatrice and I decided to register for voluntary return. We don’t want to be refugees forever — it is a very difficult life.”
Shortly after registering, the family received notification from UNHCR to begin preparing for their return. The day before departure, the family packed their belongings, and after receiving negative COVID-19 results headed for a nearby school in the camp serving as a transit centre. Here they would process their final paperwork and spend the night before returning to Burundi.
COVID-19 and no school
”My family also sends our gratitude to the government of Rwanda for hosting us all these years and for their support to help us cross back to Burundi peacefully,” Ndagijimana said.
“When you are a refugee you don’t hope for anything extra — you are just grateful for the food on your plate”
“There are things we will certainly miss about our time in Mahama camp — we’ve made lifelong friends here. In our low points, they are what got us through it — if we needed to borrow anything — they were always there,” said Beatrice.
Jeanine, 13, said she would really miss the friends she had made in Mahama. The last seven months have though been anything but normal for her and her family due to measures put in place to curb the spread of COVID-19.
“Before COVID-19, we used to be able to go to church and to school. I really miss school. I even miss taking exams!” Jeanine said. “I hope for a future where I can go back to school safely when I am back in Burundi. It is my dream to become a teacher when I grow up.”
“When you are a refugee you don’t hope for anything extra — you are just grateful for the food on your plate,” said Beatrice.
The family had arranged to stay for a while with family friends on arrival in Burundi as they tried and get themselves back on their feet. As soon as possible, they planned to return to their family farm.
Self-sufficiency is the Goal
“We know things might be difficult for a bit, though in the longer term it will be worth it as we will be self-sufficient once again,” said Ndagijimana. “We are hoping for good rains for our crops, as the farm can give us what our family needs.”
Thanks to the generous support of donors such as the United States of America, WFP is able to provide food and nutrition assistance each month to over 138,000 Burundian and Congolese refugees living in refugee camps across Rwanda.
While Burundian refugees in Mahama camp are in transit centres before returning, WFP provides food for hot meals before their departure. WFP also provides high energy biscuits for refugees during their journey back to Burundi.
Mahama is in the eastern province of Rwanda, a few kilometres from the border with Tanzania, and was established in April 2015 to host refugees from Burundi.
It is the largest of the six refugee camps in Rwanda, hosting over 58,000 refugees. Camp-based refugees in Rwanda have extremely limited livelihood opportunities. More than 80 percent of basic needs among refugee households are supported through assistance provided by humanitarian agencies such as WFP.
WFP was awarded the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts to combat hunger and its contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas. WFP is the world’s largest humanitarian organization, saving lives in emergencies and using food assistance to build a pathway to peace, stability and prosperity for people recovering from conflict, disasters and the impact of climate change.