KIGALI, Rwanda (GPI)-- “I was born in Congo and fled my country when I was a very little girl,” says Jeanine Kaneza, 20, a refugee at Gihembe refugee camp in Rwanda’s Northern province. “I was separated from my parents, and I haven’t heard from either of them since. I don’t know if they are still alive.”
Kaneza, tall and lean, was 11 when she reached the camp. Rwanda’s Ministry of Disaster Preparedness and Refugee Affairs established the camp in 1997 for those fleeing war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The ministry staff placed Kaneza with another family in the camp. And three years later, she began attending a refugee school outside the camp set up by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
When Kaneza was a student in in secondary school, she became pregnant with the child of one of her schoolmates and soon dropped out of school.
“My health deteriorated greatly, coupled with having concerns about my parents,” Kaneza says. “The absence of my parents caused me to worry and brought me to unending despair. I continued to live together with this hard reality, even after giving birth. I had lost confidence in myself.”
Today, Kaneza says the combination of losing her parents and her early pregnancy have ruined her chances of receiving an education.
“All this contributed to ruining my future,” Kaneza says. “I live a joyless life. I constantly wonder what I have to do to live a better life like everyone else.”
Young Congolese refugees in Rwanda say that an inability to afford higher education leaves little hope of re-establishing their lives locally. Idleness in the camps can lead to issues such as domestic violence and teenage pregnancy. The government has been establishing initiatives and offering technical training in the camps, but officials say the volume of refugees has overwhelmed their resources. Humanitarian organizations are pitching in to offer assistance and to connect youth with scholarships to further their education.
Small, identical houses dot the enclosed Gihembe refugee camp. Covered in plastic sheeting, they bear the imprint of “UNHCR,” the U.N. refugee agency, which provides aid to those in the camps.
Gihembe is one of three major spaces in Rwanda dedicated to Congolese refugees. It currently accommodates approximately 20,000 Congolese, according to the American Refugee Committee, a nonprofit organization that provides humanitarian assistance internationally.
More than 5 million people have died since the civil war broke out in the Congo in 1996. Tens of thousands of Congolese have also fled the country, according to the UNHCR.
The eastern region of the country has been particularly affected. After a period of relative peace, violence has escalated in the region since November 2012 when the rebel group M23 seized the main city in the east, Goma.
Government representatives and M23 leaders are in Kampala, Uganda, this week to hold peace talks. The M23 declared a unilateral cease-fire yesterday, giving hope that the conflict may soon come to a peaceful resolution.
Despite political progress, refugees already in Rwandan camps say education remains among their top concerns.
Allen Uwanyirigira, 18, lives with his mom and four older siblings in the camp. Born in Congo, he and his parents fled to Rwanda in 1997.
“I was too little to know what was happening,” he says. “I became big enough when we were in the camp and subsequently realized that we live in the camp because we were forced to flee our home country.”
Uwanyirigira, the only one of his siblings to attend school, is a day student at a secondary school set up near the camp by the UNCHR. But he says his mother struggles to afford to send him.