By Ashleigh Beauchamp | July 1, 2019

If you ask 23-year-old Don, life at Dzaleka is like being trapped somewhere, wishing every day for your freedom. 

Don, who has lived in the camp since 2014, speaks of his experience with displacement in harrowing terms. But he gets by with love and support from the 10 family members he lives with, all of whom hail from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Spending time with his family keeps Don happy and smiling, which he’s thankful for as he navigates the prison-like environment of Dzaleka, he said.

He’s grateful for his family’s presence in his life, but having so many people around means sharing resources, which are already scarce.

“Life in the camp is very difficult,” he said. “It is a life of poverty — nothing is free here.”

Getting water is a “very difficult” process, he said. He and a family member wake up as early as 4 a.m. every morning to try to be near the front of the water line. 

It’s far from enjoyable work, but providing for his family is important to Don — even more so since his mother and sister became sick from Dzaleka’s living conditions, he said.

He’s frustrated at the lack of medical care offered at the camp, especially for those residents unable to afford it.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Malawian government provide some assistance, but with so many people and so few resources, most people won’t see a doctor for their illnesses or injuries, Don said.

“If you got sick, you might suffer very much if you don’t have money,” he said. “If you go to the hospital they might not give you enough [treatment].”

With even the basics requiring great effort, every family member’s contribution to their living situation is appreciated. Despite her illness, Don’s mother uses a few of the family’s resources to bake cakes, which she sells to other camp residents.

When he’s not with his family, Don thrives off of his interactions with other Dzaleka residents. He and another resident, who is “kind of [his] best friend,” go for walks together every week.

“When I have a deep conversation with my best friend I feel happy,” he said.

Don has a deep desire to talk to people around the world, which comes as no surprise for someone living in a camp filled with refugees from diverse backgrounds.

“I’m feeling happy to be talking to people who live in other countries, to share ideas and experience characters,” Don said.

He dreams of international travel, where he could learn more about the countries and cultures he encounters. The United States and Canada are the top countries on Don’s wish list, and he’s excited to share his story with Refugee Outreach Collective as a way to virtually talk to residents of those nations, he said.

Being active is another way to keep a positive attitude, so Don plays basketball almost every day. By coming together and having a good time, Dzaleka’s hoopers take a needed break from their worries while they play.

Once the games end, however, keeping a positive outlook is not easy — especially when it comes to turning one’s ambition into real-life successes. There are more residents than resources in the camp, and the distribution of what is available is often unfair, Don said.

The UNHCR and the Malawian government provide educational programs and classes, but in some cases less than 30 people are approved, no matter the number of applicants.

“We don’t have opportunities,” Don said. “The opportunities are very limited.” 

Don is one of the lucky ones. He’s learning computer science through AppFactory, a Microsoft-backed initiative to equip Dzaleka residents with software development and business skills.

He loves programming and coding — in fact, alongside medicine, computer science is on his list of potential study areas if he were to continue his studies at a university. If Don were able to attend university, he’d return to Dzaleka with his newfound knowledge to help his family and other residents, he said.

“I just want to help people,” Don said. “I want to further my education here so I can help other people here — to help my family, to help my mom.”