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‘Culture of solidarity’: Why I’m hosting Congolese relatives who fled the M23 conflict

‘I am doing this because I have a humanist heart and a sense of hospitality.’

A group of people sit outside, smiling and in mid conversation. Mercy Corps/TNH
Nicholas Bahati Ndoolé (in the white shirt) sits outside his house in Goma with some of the family members he is hosting.

They arrived at my house in their dozens, desperate and tired. They had escaped bullets and bombs and had left everything behind them – clothes, kitchen utensils, goats, and sheep. They were worried that I wasn't going to be able to support them.

I am describing a scene that unfolded just three months ago, when more than 50 of my family members escaped the conflict between the M23 rebel group and our national army in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

The relatives arrived at my house in Goma, the main city in eastern DRC, and while some have since left to live with other family members, or have moved into nearby displacement camps, 16 of them have stayed, depending on us for food and shelter.

Host families like mine are playing a central role in accommodating the roughly 1.5 million people uprooted by the two-and-a-half-year conflict. I have many neighbours who have taken in relatives, and even people who are not members of their family.

This is not the first time I have helped displaced people: Just three years ago, I welcomed more than a dozen relatives following the eruption of Mount Nyiragongo, the volatile volcano that looms over Goma.

Congolese like me open our doors when crisis hits because we have a culture of African solidarity and because we know that anything can happen in life. You may say to yourself that you can't help this or that person, but you may also find yourself in their position one day.

Yet, what I and others are doing for displaced people is not easy. Even just from an economic point of view, imagine hosting more than 50 people? It is a heavy burden. We have had to start buying more water, more food, and more medicine. That takes its toll. 

Meanwhile, national and international humanitarian organisations are mostly focusing on the displaced people in camps. When I ask the members of my family if anyone has come to register them, the answer is always no.

Hosts like me have received zero support, though our neighbours do at least recognise the humanitarian work that we do. “You have got a big responsibility,” they often say. “Not everyone can do that”. 

Words of comfort

I moved to Goma in April 2023 to work on a water and sanitation project with Mercy Corps, the American NGO. At the time, there were six of us in my household, which is in the city’s bustling western Ndosho neighbourhood.

Things changed for my family when conflict between the M23 and army intensified in February of this year around the town of Saké, which is 20 kilometres west of Goma and where my relatives were living.

During the escalation, a bomb landed on my aunt's house. Three members of my family died instantly and three others were seriously injured. This is why they left to join me in Goma, hoping to find safety.

They were in desperate need when they arrived. They had left Saké without taking anything with them, and – given the huge expense – they thought I wasn't going to be able to support them. 

To try and calm them down, I said that what had happened was not the end of the world and that I would help. “As I am here, you are not going to die,” I told them. “Let us be together and, with God’s help, I think we will be fine.”

Esther Kahindo, a teacher, sits on a bed on the floor in a converted living room inside the house of Nicholas Bahati Ndoolé.
Mercy Corps/TNH
Esther Kahindo, a teacher, sits on a bed in a converted living room inside the house of Nicholas Bahati Ndoolé.

As soon as they arrived, all of the bedrooms in my house became occupied, and some were even sleeping in the living room. I asked neighbours and people I knew to let some of them live in their homes.

After a week, others left to go and build huts in a displacement camp in the adjacent Mugunga neighbourhood. They are still living there in inhuman conditions. Imagine someone who used to have a home and now lives in a camp without any assistance. 

Some in the camps have nothing to eat, and some don't even have tents. Children are on the streets begging without protection, and women are giving birth without assistance. There is even a secondary school pupil I know who recently died of hunger.

The challenges I am facing

Being a host has lots of challenges. Before, with my salary, I had a part for food, a part for my little brother’s education, and a part for savings. Unfortunately, however, everything I had saved for the future I have since used for my family’s survival. 

When I receive my salary now at the end of each month, I give part of it to my family members in the camps, and I also buy food for the people I host. Sometimes I end the month in debt because the cost is high given what I earn.

With the price of basic necessities rising in Goma – which has been effectively blockaded – it is hard enough to look after your own children, let alone to take in other people.

We experienced displacement ourselves in 1997 and in 2009 due to conflicts involving insurgent groups. On both occasions we lived with host families. Now, when I see how the displaced suffer, I remember when I was forced to flee my home.

This situation can cause tensions between hosts and families. Rationing the food of host children in favour of displaced children can lead to strong words from your immediate family. They might say: “My children are going to die because of you”.

Still, I am doing this because I have a humanist heart and a sense of hospitality. I cannot accept that my family and other acquaintances might die of starvation when I have the money to buy flour that could have fed them for a week. I could not bear that.

Moreover, I have seen this culture of welcoming displaced people into families throughout my life. In 1994, when I was four or five, I remember seeing Rwandan refugees spending the night at our house, and others growing crops for my father.

We experienced displacement ourselves in 1997 and in 2009 due to conflicts involving insurgent groups. On both occasions we lived with host families. Now, when I see how the displaced suffer, I remember when I was forced to flee my home.

Hope and courage

Despite the suffering that I am currently experiencing, I feel good. Though it is heartbreaking to lose family members, it is a relief to share in the suffering of people and to help them rebuild their lives.

Instead of letting the current situation slow down my work, it has actually been giving me even more courage. Right now, I am working even harder so that at the end of the month I will be able to help my family and acquaintances survive.

I am not hopeful that people will be able to return home soon. It is up to the government to show the will to restore state authority so that our families can resume their farming activities.

Another concern is that even if my relatives do return to their towns and villages, their homes have been destroyed by the fighting. It is hard to imagine how they will live. This situation is very worrying to me.

Having said that, I still hold out hope that one day there will be a new Congo, a new east, and a new city of Goma. Building it will require people of solidarity and action – just like the host families helping their compatriots through this painful war.

Edited by Philip Kleinfeld.

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