by Leah Davies
No box, label or category can sum up this stellar individual.
Not even this fable, but I will try.
Yes. He is a refugee with a remarkable story peppered with dire challenge, immeasurable triumph and shear resilience, but he is also many other things. A man. A son. A brother. A student. A change maker. A leader among his peers.
His experience does not define him. Limit him. Cage him.
He won’t allow it.
David* is a friend. His story is unlike mine and probably very different to yours.
What I find particularly beautiful about David is his integrity and how he courageously goes about his day to get one step closer to his unshakable vision. A lofty dreamer who deeply believes in creating peace from within a refugee camp.
He inspires others with his bigness, even if he doesn’t know it.
His story of bigness goes like this…
At the tender young age of nine years, David was forced to flee his home village in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) along with his parents and five brothers and four sisters. It was 1996, the time of the First Congo War. Riots, destruction and war had taken away any semblance of what was once home, with neighbouring Tanzania the only option for safety. “I suddenly found myself in an unknown place… I was confused and so scared. When we tried to escape, we lost each other. Some of us were with my mother and some of us were with my father. The boats leaving for Tanzania were crazy. Everyone was trying to get out. People were everywhere. We were first arrested by Tanzanian soldiers then redirected to a transit camp for ten days with thousands of other people before going to Nyarugusu refugee camp in Dar es salaam. We thought that my mum and other brothers and sisters had been killed, but thankfully, we found each other.”
Since this time, more than 5.4 million people just like David and his family have been displaced by horrific human rights atrocities including mass torture, violence and sexual harassment in DRC’s long and brutal conflict (World Without Genocide 2012).
“My earliest memories are of my father cutting down trees and clearing a space in the camp, which at this time had no facilities. We were surrounded by forest… He built from the few materials we were given a small hut that housed my parents and all my brothers and sisters… This hut was our new life.”
David reflected, “It was very hard for me to cope with this environment, but there was no option. There was no option for any of us… I remember feeling so much sorrow and thinking that my life was over.”
Instead, David flipped it. He tried and tried some more. He joined other children in the circles that met regularly under the trees and read from books and magazines that could be rummaged from within the camp. He scribbled foreign words and numbers onto scraps of paper, eager to learn from the adults who volunteered their time in the makeshift classroom.
As he grew and learnt more about his journey and circumstances, David began to think about identity. Questions like “Who am I? What does it mean to be a refugee? Where am I going? What will I do?” surfaced. “I remember one day in the camp a man was asked to give the number of people waiting outside the office to which he replied “There are three people and two refugees”. I soon realized that being a refugee translated into being among the most unlucky people in the world because you do not belong anywhere, which makes you feel even more exploited, excluded and neglected… but I also realized pretty soon that I wouldn’t let my experience become my identity.”
Education was seen as the gateway to the new. The camp gradually received enough funds to construct a primary and secondary school, and David’s passion for learning soared. “I had dreams to go to university but there was no way my parents could afford it. I was getting disappointed, but my parents were always telling us about having faith, hope and patience. I knew about this scholarship program and passed the first preliminary exam successfully. Then came the second test, but I was given the wrong information about it and arrived late. There was only half an hour remaining and the lady was going to turn me away before another officer said let’s give him a chance… It was hard but I finished it in half the time.”
David soon learned that he was one of twenty-two students in all of Tanzania who were successful in receiving the scholarship. “When I heard the positive results, I cried. My parents were also happy and proud of me. The trip to the university was ready. My father gave me his old bag… I didn’t know English well or Kiswahili. I had mixed feelings as I always considered university my hero, my chance for a better future, but we were told once you fail, you’ll be back to the camp… I felt the pressure.”
But true to David’s character and determination, he passed with flying colours. “I also got the scholarship for my masters in urban planning and management. It was a great chance for me. I know I am very blessed. Not everyone has the chance to go to university in Tanzania.”
For the past forty years, Tanzania has hosted one of the largest refugee populations in Africa as a consequence of war, genocide, and instability in neighbouring countries, and has continued to enforce an encampment policy, with few chances to leave the camp. Over the years, David has witnessed great friction and segregation among various ethnic tribes in the camp. “There was an atmosphere of prejudice transmitted from one generation to the next. There was no trust and a whole lot of resentment that often lead to revengeful actions.”
David recognized that being in Tanzania was an opportunity for a new start. An opportunity to solve what led to the violence in the first place. An opportunity to create a massive shift.
But where do you even start?
He thought about happy times; memories of when people were united. “I’m a massive fan of sports, soccer in particular. It has its own language and creates a space of fun and joy. That’s when it clicked. Soccer would be the platform for peace.”
David pitched his idea to several organisations and networks he was connected with and was fortunate to receive funding from Oxfam International Youth Partnerships to get his project off the ground.
It didn’t take long before the Tumaini (Hope) Sports Academy was established in the camp. “Boys and girls aged 12-18 years from the numerous ethnic groups are chosen to form soccer teams. Through the sport, we create space for dialogue about the conflict, understand each other’s experiences and teach life-skills to build confidence and hope for a better future… It’s going really well with over 100 participants now.”
Humbleness is David’s middle name. The Academy will actually soon be a registered not-for-profit organization in DRC; a huge feat to say the least.
David said, “It is my dream that in 8-10 years time, we will be part of a peaceful, integrated community that builds on a sense of shared identity and equal fellowship, with positive relationships among people… I truly believe, regardless of status, refugees can change the world.”
We all have multiple faces, masks and mirrors that make up our identity. Being a refugee is just one of David’s and he is blazing the trail to peace.
*Author’s Note: David is not the true name of the magnificent change maker featured in this story. I have used this pseudonym to protect his identity for privacy and safety reasons.
Leah Davies is a writer and a human rights advocate; a yogini and health food lover who enjoys nothing more than beach swims, bush walks and playing with animals. She believes in the power of the story and has created Paper Planes, an online space, which is all about connection. To her, connection is everything; the conversations we have, the ideas we share and the laughs and smiles we exchange are a huge part of who we are. It is a space to capture and share what connection means to people from all walks of life. Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world” and she is gathering the stories of people who, through the decisions they make and the way they choose to live their lives, are endeavoring to be the change they want to see in the world.
Each person has a story to tell, a message to share. Let’s connect heart to heart, mind to mind, soul to soul. Visit Paper Planes at: http://cloudjumping.blogspot.com/