By Maxwell Evans
“I want to help every kind of people. Everyone needs to be free. They need peace of mind in order to survive.”
Dangerous. Insecure. Hectic. Dzaleka resident Nelly paints a dark picture of the refugee camp she’s resided in for most of her short life.
“Some are taking their own life, or selling their own bodies to feed themselves,” Nelly said. “You build a house and some people will break in your door and rape you, and you won’t have any idea who those people are. When you go to the police and report, they don’t really care. Ask your neighbor and they’re afraid to help each other.”
Nelly was born in South Africa, grew up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and has spent 13 of her 22 years living in Dzaleka. Surrounded by tragedy and instability for most of her life, Nelly’s seemingly endless well of generosity might be puzzling at first glance — after all, she’s a camp resident, not some wealthy international volunteer.
She donates her old clothes to orphans in the camp, chats with hospital patients to brighten their days when they’re losing hope and sometimes uses what little income she brings in to purchase sugar for her neighbors.
Her efforts are a way to show other refugees that “there are people outside who care for them,” Nelly said. “No matter the circumstances I’m facing in the camp, I still need to help people with the small things that I have.”
That compassion — that ability to see the humanity in everyone, and the positives in most things — that’s what Nelly loves most about herself. She compares herself to Mahatma Gandhi for her willingness to help others.
Nelly’s desire to understand, help and connect with people has found its way into nearly every part of her existence, from daily life at the camp to academics to her professional dreams. She’s studying to become a social worker and intends to take up cases of women, young children and single mothers.
“They’re the ones facing a lot of difficulties in the world,” Nelly said. “I want to be a rescue.”
Higher education comes with many challenges at the camp — there aren’t many computers, and Nelly regularly scrambles to keep in touch with professors when the WiFi goes out — but she is happy to have the resources and intellect to study a subject she is passionate about.
She hopes to start an organization called “Make a Decision to Love,” to help women navigate their marriages to abusive or unfaithful partners — whether that means divorce, separation or reconciliation.
“I have to find solutions for [women] to stay safe in their marriage, and I talk to the men and show them [women] must have equal rights,” Nelly said.
Nelly said Malawi is a beautiful country because “there’s no war in it,” but that refugees are often viewed with suspicion and treated unequally by the nation’s residents. Public hospitals don’t offer the same treatment to refugees as to Malawians, she says, and employers won’t accept applications from refugees.
Nelly was living in the camp in 2012, when then-President Joyce Banda asked immigration and defense officials in Malawi to consider shutting down Dzaleka to prevent an “influx” of illegal immigrants.
“How someone could remain in the refugee camp when war in your country ended some 10 years ago? What are you doing?” Banda said, as quoted in a Voice of America report.
Banda’s request never resulted in the camp’s closure but reflected the anti-refugee attitudes of many Malawians — who often face poverty themselves and resent refugees for using valued resources, Nelly said.
Some refugees turn to alcohol and “the life of recklessness” because they can’t bear the camp’s conditions but, because of U.N. rules and the political climate in Malawi, have nowhere else to go.
She believes the way to combat the hopelessness and negativity that often sprouts from such an environment is with love.
“It’s very dangerous living in this camp. I hope one day we’ll all leave this hectic place,” Nelly said. But in the meantime, “people need to be taken care of in order to forget all the bad, bad things that have happened in their lives.”
A writer and musician, Nelly’s creative output reflects her humanitarian interests as well. She’s currently composing a song to encourage struggling HIV and AIDS patients in Malawi to continue their treatment, a process that involves recording lyrics and melodies to her phone and practicing them until they’re just right.
“When you sing a song of joy and sing a song of hope it makes you want to try harder and put a smile on your face,” Nelly said. “I write songs because they can heal the mind and an emotional heart.”
The Mind of Mahatma Gandhi, a collection of her idol’s philosophies and thoughts, strengthens Nelly when she feels weak, while the biblical Book of Noah is her favorite book. Inspired by these texts and others, Nelly said she also hopes to publish a book one day — a book that “each and every woman can read and feel strong.”
She’s already preparing for her book’s release date; she carries around a hardcover journal filled with “340 writings and 200 poems,” many of which are about life in Dzaleka and are intended to help other refugees feel less alone in their difficult experiences.
Balancing her studies, creative passions and community outreach with the bleakness of camp life might sound like a heavy burden, but Nelly said she’s always felt prepared to take on any challenge.
After 13 years in the camp, she’s learned an important lesson: you might not control the hand you’ve been dealt, but you sure can make the most of it.
“I’ve been a girl with a lot of dreams, a lot of ambition,” Nelly said. “The only thing that the people have to do is face their situations and find a way to deal with it.”