The Life of Unaccompanied Child in Mahama Camp


Steve Nzaramba

Communications Assistant, Save the Children International

Mahama Refugee Camp, Rwanda

June 20, 2015


*Ndayizeye smiles shyly and looks away when asked what he hopes to be when he grows up. He seems unsure of how to tackle an often-asked question. Could it be that he is yet undecided on what he would like to do with his life? Or maybe it is due to the fact that he is now a refugee, and despite his tender age, is well aware of the limitations that status imposes on him and his prospects for the future.

Ndayizeye is one of thousands of children who currently calls the scorching-hot Mahama Refugee Camp in Kirehe District…home. He, and many like him, fled from Burundi’s volatile Kirundo Province as reports of violence against civilians intensified.

Kirundo residents have borne the brunt of attacks from a government-controlled youth militia known as “Imbonerakure” (which ominously means those who see from afar). Kirundo residents were among the most vocal against the current President’s plans to run for re-election, often taking to the streets in protest and having running battles with the police day after day.  Ndayizeye

After waffling ,Ndayizeye says he wants to be a medical doctor, as he enjoys learning languages and human sciences. His uncertainty mirrors the situation he now finds himself in, as it remains unclear how he can pursue his studies and become a doctor when his schooling has been interrupted, with no clear timeframe for when he will resume studies.

Ndayizeye left his home abruptly one morning when he was actually due to be in a human sciences class. As rumors spread like wildfire about impending raids, he and his younger brother took the bold decision to leave, a decision thrust into their hands prematurely by the untimely death of their parents years before. He and his brother were both staying with relatives, who didn’t care much for their whereabouts. Joining a group of young men who said they were Rwanda-bound, Ndayizeye left without a single penny in his pocket, then trekked across the country.

Travelling mostly via back-roads and cutting through the bush to avoid the marauding Imbonerakure, the group made good progress on foot until they encountered a river which they had to cross; the alternative of going around it would have been unsafe.

If not for the mercy of a native of the area, who warned them that Imbonerakure now controlled the ferry that transported travelers across the river, they would not have made it. He advised them to wait until dark and construct a make-shift raft on which to cross. Even then, they had to be extremely careful to avoid the ferry the Imbonerakure were using to smuggle people across after-hours, extorting fees from the fleeing population.

Their terrifying journey continued until they reached the Rwanda-Burundi border, where they hid all day and crossed to Rwanda via back-paths usually used by traders to illegally import goods. After crossing into Rwandan territory their journey became easier as they found buses chartered by the Rwandan government to transport all Burundian asylum-seekers (as they were known at the time) to a transit camp in Bugesera free of charge.

Once there, life became a bit easier as they were received warmly, given a tent to rest in and given food. After a brief stay at Gashora Transit Center, Ndayizeye and his little brother were again on the move, headed to Mahama Refugee Camp.

There, his plight resumed as he told us of how he was removed from the list of unaccompanied minors due to receive special assistance, since the authorities found out that he was living with his brother and therefore declared him “accompanied”. Even more shocking is that he was told he is now the head of the household – at the tender age of 16! Save the Children Community Protection Officer Daphrose took up Ndayizeye’s case to have it re-assessed by the camp authorities so as to accommodate him.

Save the Children is intervening in the camp through Community Protection, which essentially means ensuring that the more vulnerable residents of the camp and those with special needs like the elderly, expectant mothers, people living with disabilities, child headed households etc. have timely and appropriate access to services such as health, food, shelter, water and sanitation provided by other implementing partners.

According to Edwin Kuria, the Response Team Leader, “We have recruited a staff base of about 10, which has been bolstered by 20 volunteers from the Burundian refugee population, and the plan is to double that capacity in the coming weeks, to make sure that we have sufficient capacity to cover the 139 people with special needs (elderly and/or living with disabilities) as of 14th May 2015.”

In a short period of time, requests have poured in and Save the Children volunteers are working overtime to ensure these requests are responded to. A lot remains to be done at the camp to alleviate the suffering of minors like Ndayizeye, with neither parents nor home to call their own.

*Name changed for protection

To learn more about our work helping children like Ndayizeye, click here.