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Flipping the Narrative: ‘It’s like living in a waiting room to nowhere’

What happens when so-called ‘solutions’ for refugees fail?

A black and white drawing where a the subject sits at a pier by the water. It feeds bread crumbs to many paper boats that surround the pier. This art is by the Cuban artist Ramiro Zardoya. Ramiro Zardoya/Cartoon Movement

The UN's refugee agency, UNHCR, says refugees like me who are forced to leave their homes have three options to resume their lives: voluntary return to the place they've left, integration in their host country, or resettlement to a third country. For the vast majority of refugees, these so-called ‘durable solutions’ do not work.


I know this because I am a refugee still searching for a “durable solution”. Instead of finding one, I feel I have been forgotten by the world and left stranded in a refugee camp where my life – and the lives of thousands of others like me – is whittling away. 


I am 28 years old now. When I was younger, I always thought that, one day, I would go back to Burundi, my home country. But as I’ve gotten older, that dream has slowly faded. Instead, I have been living in Dzaleka refugee camp in Malawi for more than two decades. The laws in Malawi prohibit me from becoming a part of society, and I have little hope of being resettled to a third country where I would have a chance to live a full life. Globally, less than 1% of refugees are resettled each year. 


If you are reading this, you likely have more power to change things than I do. So I ask you: Are you satisfied with the status quo? If not, what can you do to ensure that future refugees will not be condemned to live in my state of prolonged, destructive limbo?


Around the world, millions of refugees like me have been forced to flee their homes because of war, persecution, or natural disasters.


Instead of finding solutions, we languish – often for a decade or more – in refugee camps that were supposed to provide temporary safety and shelter but end up becoming permanent settlements. 


We live in a perpetual state of waiting – waiting for these ‘durable solutions’ that rarely come. Imagine spending years and years of your life in a state of limbo with little prospect of ever finding a place to call home? It’s like living in a waiting room to nowhere. 


‘We were not safe’


I was only a few months old in 1994 when my family fled our hometown of Cibitoke in northwestern Burundi because of the country’s civil war. My mother later told me that the morning we left, she saw smoke and flames starting to rise from our neighbours’ houses as Hutu rebels stormed the city, killing people indiscriminately. 


My father was not at home, so my mother – who was born deaf and mute, and who was pregnant at the time – put me on her back, grabbed my elder sister by the hand, and joined other people who were running for their lives.


It took us four long, perilous months to reach Tanzania, trekking through forests infested with venomous snakes and dangerous wild animals to avoid being seen by the rebel militia. I was told that many people starved to death and some children were left behind because they could not walk. 


Even after we reached the Nyarugusu refugee camp in the Kigoma region of northwest Tanzania, we were not safe. People said that some of the Hutu rebels who had taken part in the killing were also coming to Nyarugusu. Fear spread that violence would erupt in the camp. So in 1998, three years after we arrived, we left again, this time to Malawi. 


‘People who cannot imagine a future give up’


Life in the Dzaleka refugee camp has not been easy. The camp was meant to host about 10,000 refugees, mainly fleeing the 1994 Rwandan genocide, but it is now home to more than 50,000 people.


Loss of hope is common. The stark reality we live in pushes people to despair and to make desperate decisions. 

Map of Malawi with locator points in Dzaleka Refugee Camp and also Lilongo, the capital of Malawi.

My mother turned to begging in the streets to provide for me and my siblings because no one would give her a job due to her disabilities. When my older sister reached adolescence, like many young women here who have no other way of earning money, she started working as a sex worker to help support our family.


A lot of the boys I grew up with have ended up with mental illnesses and turned to drugs to try to escape their reality. Husbands and wives fight because of financial pressures. And men lose their sense of dignity because they are unable to provide for their families. I’ve seen people who cannot imagine a future give up and take their own lives.


This is the life that refugees in Dzaleka – and other camps around the world – have been living for decades. It is the life that we are condemned to continue to live because of the failure to find true solutions for us.


‘Will my turn ever come?’


Even after more than two decades, we still cannot go back to our country. My mother is traumatised by what she experienced in 1994 and doesn’t want to return. Burundi also continues to be unstable and unsafe.


At the same time, integrating into the local community in Malawi is no longer possible. In April last year, the government introduced a new policy requiring all refugees to live inside Dzaleka – including people who had been living outside the camp for years. And the government does not allow refugees to work. 


Despite the bleak prospects, I am still pursuing an education. I am currently studying an online course in business management offered by Southern New Hampshire University in the United States, but I have little hope of ever leaving the camp or finding a job.


Sometimes I feel like there is no point in studying. Many young people become discouraged and give up on education. But I am holding out hope that one day there will be an opportunity for me to get a job and better my life. It may not be possible in Dzaleka, but maybe I will get a chance to go to a third country. 


A few people I know – including some of my childhood friends – have been resettled to Canada, Australia, or countries in Europe. When I saw them leave, I asked myself: “Will my turn ever come?”


‘Refugees need to be treated with dignity’


Many people in Dzaleka, including me, have started the resettlement process – preparing documents and going through various screenings and interviews – but have been left waiting for a decade or more with no progress.


When we ask UNHCR for an update, we are told that our cases have been closed or that our files have been lost. Most of us aren’t given an explanation, and the process of trying to figure out what happened or reopen our cases is both time-consuming and never seems to go anywhere. Sometimes, it seems like people who have stayed in the camp the longest have been forgotten while the cases of newly arrived refugees move more quickly, which breaks a lot of people’s hearts.


Like I said, I’m holding out hope. But experiencing how the system works in the camp and knowing how few refugees are resettled globally makes it difficult. 


Like any other human beings, refugees need to be treated with dignity. Their rights need to be respected. Host governments and the international organisations that say they want to help need to come together and find ways to allow refugees to work, move freely, and integrate into society. Wealthy countries need to do more to resettle refugees. 


Above all, we need reasons to believe our futures will be better than the present or the past. 


Edited by Moulid Hujale and Eric Reidy.

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