By Jasraj Kochar
“I want to be the voice for the voiceless. I want to speak on behalf of those people who cannot speak for themselves.”
Adaptive, ardent, and ambitious, 20-year-old Belise is an unwavering catalyst for change — and will soon get a chance to continue her journey beyond the confines of Dzaleka.
The Burundi native has lived in the camp for 10 years. Education is key in her world, as she alternates between the roles of student and teacher on a regular basis.
Belise is a stellar student. She’s enrolled in an online diploma program and was recently accepted into Canada’s selective Refugee Sponsorship Program.
This opportunity is “a miracle,” Belise said. She intends to study medicine, international development or social work through the program.
In preparation, she’s signed up for two or three classes per term while at Dzaleka, depending on availability. When she’s not busy with her own classwork, she serves as a teacher and works to promote knowledge and skill-building within her community.
On some days before her classes, she gives lectures on Java and HTML programming basics to a full classroom of girls. Although she took a year of programming courses at the camp, Belise said computer science isn’t one of her preferred fields of study.
It’s a busy life, but she’s got the routine down. Belise appreciates the support she’s received growing up in Dzaleka and feels she’s just doing her part to return the favor through teaching.
“You get from the community; you also have to teach the community,” she said.
After preparing all year for her studies abroad, Belise will finalize a major and head off to a Canadian university in a few short months. By August, she will have left behind Dzaleka, the place she’s called home for exactly half her life.
As with her teaching gig, Belise approaches her future university studies with others in mind. She hopes to use her education and her empathy to help impoverished communities and struggling refugees — and she knows all too well what that experience is like.
Living day-to-day in Dzaleka means facing substantial problems, she said. Food rations have been drastically cut, and a large percentage of families in the camp rely on those rations to sustain their families. Predictably, the cuts have created an epidemic of hunger.
Since some refugees have no regular source of income, they sometimes resort to robbery and even murder for access to food and other resources, Belise said.
And despite her belief in education, that’s not a guaranteed solution for Dzaleka residents looking to gain stability. She’s been accepted into a selective program abroad, but the highly competitive nature of educational opportunities in the camp limits most other refugees’ options.
“Now imagine maybe 1,000 students apply and [these programs] only take 35 students — what about the rest of them?” Belise said.
Since illicit drugs are cheap and accessible in Malawi, many boys turn to them to cope or to pass time if they are not accepted into their fields of study, she said. Girls with limited educational opportunities are often pressured to marry at a young age, given the economic stability marriage can provide.
Belise seeks to empower girls to make their own decisions, something she said service organizations in the camp fail to do. These organizations often create catchy slogans around issues of female empowerment, but do not provide women with the resources necessary to avoid a premature marriage, she said.
“Being a refugee is not easy because we face a lot of challenges, especially for us girls,” Belise said.
With all her responsibilities, it’s no surprise Belise upholds a rigorous work ethic. But she still finds time to have fun.
Fantasy and action movies are her personal favorites, as they encourage her to use her imagination.
“Things that have never existed make me think deeper, so I like them,” Belise said.
With her zest for life and passion for building relationships, Belise emphasized the importance of working together to help communities prosper. She stressed how even the smallest bit of help can go a long way to help refugees across the globe.
“If you have a chance of helping anyone, please think of the refugees,” she said.