By Maxwell Evans
“(Refugees) have great minds and can do great things for other people. They can change the world.”
For Yvonne Nyamamana, Dzaleka is a world of contradictions.
She appreciates the peace the camp provides for so many fleeing strife in their homelands but is intimately aware of the dangers of daily life.
She feels Dzaleka is a place of freedom but says residents can’t do much with that freedom given a lack of food, water and money.
She lives in love and harmony with her sisters at the camp but laments the fact that not everyone is so lucky.
For women especially, living with family or other loved ones is almost a necessity in Dzaleka, Yvonne said. Men can get away with living or traveling alone, but “many things can happen” to women who choose to do the same.
Family members also provide greater economic stability and are willing to share food and needed resources in a setting where none of that is guaranteed, she said.
“When people are living alone, the life is tough. You can imagine that,” Yvonne said. “But if someone is in a family there is nothing that he or she cannot do. They can be comfortable in knowing they are taken care of.”
Sharing and managing resources amongst family members has become especially important given the dire food situation currently hitting Dzaleka. An estimated $4.2 million funding shortage for 2019 led the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to start the year by cutting the camp’s food rations in half for the months of January, February and March.
On the rare occasions when Yvonne and her sisters leave Dzaleka and interact with Malawians, she says the locals can be patronizing. In conversation, they greet her with a smile, but Yvonne senses in their tone that her status as a refugee affects the way they treat her.
“Even if you speak their language, they can know, ‘This one is not a Malawian,’” she said. “I like to talk to them, but they do not want to share with refugees. They speak to you as if they love you, but in an ironic way. They pretend like they really want to talk to you, but that is not what they are thinking.”
Natives sometimes refer to Dzaleka residents as maburundi, a “name to marginalize refugees” that wrongly considers them all to be Burundian, Yvonne said.
She doesn’t necessarily hold that attitude against the native population. She understands Malawi is a small, poor country, and competition for resources, land and jobs are high.
But those facts don’t make the marginalization of refugees in the country easier to handle, particularly as it relates to employment.
Yvonne said refugees — whose job prospects are largely limited to volunteer work, self-employment or work within the camp’s borders — are rarely hired by Malawians. That’s true even if they are more qualified than native-born candidates.
Malawians “are good, but at some point they do discriminate and they do marginalize,” Yvonne said. Even if “you know the language of Malawi and English and your mother tongue, I can find that — after trying and calling them — only Malawians are getting work.”
She is inspired by women in the camp who, facing a lack of opportunity, have taken control of their financial situation by starting a business or selling handmade crafts.
“Women here are working hard on themselves,” Yvonne said. “They are creative; they create and go to vendors so they can have help with their funds. Instead of just staying at home and doing nothing, they stand up and be creative.”
Yvonne’s taken a different path to fulfillment. She’s currently studying social work, with the end goal of becoming a lawyer.
She wants to be a catalyst for change in the legal system, which she says is riddled with apathy and greed.
“Here, people are defending others just because they are maybe getting money. They don’t defend the person,” she said. “They pretend they have a (moral) reason (for taking cases), but they do things in a way that is not really good. That is injustice. I don’t like it.”
She’s enrolled in an eight-week political thought course as she hustles to finish her three-year program a year early. After completing this and six other courses, she’ll be rewarded with a diploma in social work.
More than anything, Yvonne wants her education and ambition to be an example for Malawians and the world at large. She hopes they see her and learn to treat all refugees as equals, rather than a target of scorn or pity.
Refugees desire to use their minds and bodies for the world’s benefit, she said — just as anyone else does.
“Other people have the mind that the refugees are terrible,” she said. “Refugees are people like everyone else and they can do good things like everyone else. That’s why they cannot be discriminated against or marginalized, because they have the ability to do what they want about anything.”