Dieudonné Kikalage JOËL: We are alive, still alive

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We are alive, still alive

Dieudonné Kikalage JOËL

A refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Teacher, director of the Nakivale Researchers Network, and founder of the "Built to Become Competent" language and professional skills center.

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We already know that we don’t stand much chance – Dieudonné Kikalage JOËL writes from the Nakivale camp in Uganda for “Wszystko Co Najważniejsze”

My name is Dieudonné Kikalage Joël. I will tell you what the life in an African refugee camp looks like during the COVID-19 pandemic.

I live in Nakivale, one of the largest refugee camps in Uganda, located in the southwestern part of the country, in the Isingiro region. I escaped from the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2013. Since then, I have been registered as a refugee in Nakivale.

When I found myself in the camp, it wasn’t discouragement that I felt. I wasn’t depressed. I was determined. I started learning English and managed to finish my studies. I joined a teacher training college called “Bishop Stuart College in Mbarara”. I completed a training for carers of children at the primary stage of education. At Nakivale, I opened a language and professional skills training centre called ‘Built to Become Competent’ (BBC for short). This is a great place where many people could learn a specific trade, but also learn another language, find out about the world, get to know a lot more than their peers do. I also created the Centre for the Development of Early Education for children aged 3-6. Many children benefited from this place too.

In 2017, I was employed by Windle International Uganda (WIU) as a teacher’s assistant. I became a research assistant and hosted many scientists from Europe, representatives of NGOs, doctors, students and journalists. In a way, this is how and why this text came to life that you are reading now in your homes in Poland.

Although life in a refugee camp is not easy, everyone here works to improve it. All refugees have faced various challenges, and most of us are here, because in one moment of our lives, we decided to confront them.

We refused to die, and that’s why we’re in Nakivale. Today, we – the refugees – are once again facing a life-threatening situation.

COVID-19 has silenced Uganda. It froze the economy, stopped laughter, and disrupted our lives. Everyone knows that we are all in danger here.

Most people coming to the camp earn their living from various activities. People staying here mainly deal with transportation, agriculture, trade and other small jobs, such as tailoring, hairdressing and handicraft. Only thanks to this work can refugees survive. However, when restrictions were imposed due to the pandemic, all companies in Nakivale were shut down. Only stores where food can be bought and money withdrawn or transferred were left open.

The residents of the camp receive a monthly food ration that was never enough to survive, but now, because of the pandemic, it has been limited even more.

To be more specific: per month, a person receives 8.82 kg of corn, 2 cans of beans, 0.63 litres of frying oil and 22,000 UGX (approximately PLN 20 or EUR 4.5). That’s all – and to be honest, there isn’t anything else. And no one can say this time: “Go to work and earn your food”. It’s not that easy when all Nakivale residents have to stay at home, when they are not able to move, trade, and get food.

Some refugees have gardens quite far away from their homes. Usually they would transport the harvested food to the camp. But as of now transportation is prohibited. The possibility of moving on a motorcycle or bicycle has been restricted. People living of agriculture, usually those who prosper best, also aren’t safe.

Does reducing the monthly food rations help ensure the safety of camp residents against COVID-19? How are we to collect water needed for survival, since water intake points are located many kilometres away, and we are not allowed to use any means of transport?

There is a similar problem in the case of food distribution points which are far from the homes of most refugees. Some people walk a long distance to get food and water, and when they return home, they collapse out of exhaustion, get sick, are dehydrated, eat raw corn to regenerate. Older people cannot travel such distances. They stay at home without food or water.

We don’t stand much chance to survive in these conditions.

The illness is tantamount to a death sentence for a refugee. It is as if the refugee status made the man invisible. Invisible to the world, to doctors and nurses. Healthcare – it’s hard to say it even exists.

I was told how people were getting food, but it wasn’t enough for a whole family. People have no coal or wood to cook. So they eat raw products. They suffer, they get sick, they can’t count on medical treatment. You need to get to a hospital early in the morning, but a patient will only be admitted in the evening – such a person will then leave for home with drugs that are not applicable in the treatment of their disease.

The doctor usually sits locked up in his office, not accepting the sick and waiting for the end of the day when he will be able to send the gathered people home. Every day, people group at the hospital gate and wait for help.

Where are the doctors? What are they doing? Afternoon comes, then evening, then night… Are we to forcefully open the gates?

It’s as if our growing presence only increased our invisibility. When evening comes, a doctor usually walks out of the office and tells the patients: “Go home, go home, please! What do you, refugees, not understand? I am very tired”.

Some patients die waiting for the doctor. One day, a pregnant woman gave birth to a child in front of the hospital gate without any assistance of a nurse. One person attacked the nurse out of anger and she never returned to work again.

Perhaps what I will write may seem strange to you, but it isn’t COVID-19 that is our biggest problem. It is the lack of access to clean water, the inability to boil it, and the insufficient number of intake points. We drink water from the lake. We lack basic healthcare and food.

COVID-19 shut a camp, where people have no livelihood, of over 100,000 in Nakivale. And this is only this one camp. Is this what life should be like during a pandemic in a refugee camp? Is it supposed to change a life-threatening situation into a death sentence?

I hope this will be over quickly. Maybe somehow thanks to the fact that I am telling all of you what is happening to us here.

God bless you,
Dieudonné Kikalage Joël

If you can help refugees from Nakivale, please send us an email to redakcja@wszystkoconajwazniejsze.pl.

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