By Maxwell Evans
“Whenever we are breathing still, we don’t have to give up.”
Raphaël Ndabaga pulls no punches when describing his life since fleeing the insecurity of the Democratic Republic of the Congo nearly six years ago.
“Living here is being incarcerated,” he said. “Being a refugee isn’t a status that a human being should expect to hold.”
The 24-year-old, who trekked through Burundi and Tanzania on his way to seeking refuge in Malawi, can’t leave Dzaleka without a permit granted by the camp manager. The permits limit travel from the camp to 50 kilometers.
Permanent employment in Malawi is impossible, so a trilingual, ambitious student like Raphaël is limited to work classified as “volunteer” — for which he’s eligible to receive incentives, not a salary.
A way out from this restrictiveness seemed at first possible, then guaranteed. Raphaël applied for the World University Service of Canada’s (WUSC) student refugee program in 2015 and was accepted in 2016. He was headed to Université Laval in Québec City on a full scholarship.
Getting to Québec was a waiting game. Still another year passed as Raphaël went through the program’s vetting process; by August 2017, he had completed it and was on his way.
Until he wasn’t. Four days before departing, he received a letter from the WUSC informing him his sponsorship had been revoked. The reasons would not be disclosed.
Raphaël called the university. Admissions had no issues on its end but had been sent a similar email from the WUSC, saying he wasn’t allowed to travel for 72 hours due to “confidential reasons.”
He had already donated his belongings to orphans and others in need around the camp in preparation for a new life in Canada.
“I just thank God that I am still breathing, but I was about to die due to depression,” Raphaël said. “It was really a shock.”
After a grieving process, he transitioned into an acceptance of his situation. If a return to Dzaleka was the only option, then he would pursue education and employment just as he would have in Québec.
He applied for two vacancies in the community, one as a secondary school teacher and another as a broadcaster at Yetu Community Radio, a station that officially opened on 27 April 2018 and began broadcasting on 07 August 2018.
Alongside his employment, he’s working toward his liberal studies degree with a concentration in social work. Staying “updated” on the topics that interest him is empowering, he said, and education has given him a base from which to grow — even with all of Dzaleka’s limitations.
“I like studying because that’s where everything comes from – knowledge, skills, acquaintances, connections and wisdom,” Raphaël said. “I am trying not to lose even a day without learning something new.”
Before long, however, Raphaël was overwhelmed trying to balance his studies with his responsibilities at the secondary school and at Yetu Radio. Driven by a dream to become a professional journalist, he chose to focus on broadcasting.
He quickly worked his way into a leadership position at the station, which broadcasts educational programs and camp communications in six languages: Swahili, French, English, Kirundi, Kinyarwanda and Chichewa.
As senior programs director, he’s able to travel freely throughout Malawi to promote the station, and his program Youth Speaks (tagline: “the voice of the voiceless”) is broadcast to the entire Dzaleka population and surrounding host communities.
It’s exciting for someone who never had the chance to be a reporter, let alone head of a radio news department, in his home country.
“What keeps me happy is that, I am living in an environment whereby people accept me as well as my services,” Raphaël said.
Raphaël refuses to settle on a single dream for the future, but a major goal of his is to open an educational center for orphans and homeless children; “I have a very soft heart for orphans as I believe they deserve everything,” he said.
Starting a center that combines a traditional education with vocational skills would allow him to put his schooling to a practical use and a way to pass on his love of learning to the youth.
“Life is flexible in Dzaleka for those who sacrifice their time to education,” Raphaël said. “After being instructed, opportunities are many.”
He has certainly made the most of his opportunities and refuses to take them for granted. He’s thankful to the government of Malawi for granting him the security and relative peace of mind that comes with legal refugee status, a benefit not all Dzaleka residents have.
Raphaël has one piece of advice for other residents struggling with their uncertain, challenging life situations, and it’s clear his advice comes from a place of experience: as long as you’re still alive, you have a chance to turn your struggles into learning experiences.
“To fail is not to fail until you fail,” he said. “We can claim failure when we die.”