Published: June 9th 2007June 9th 2007
Some kids playing it cool
They tend to be very serious when you take a snapshot of them, but then they giggle like mad when you show them the picture afterward.
Well as if the hassle with the immigration lady wasn’t enough I am now getting trouble from the government! I went to seek their cooperation in communicating to refugees who haven’t filed their claims yet that I would be available to help them, and was told that a refugee’s story is a secret between the refugee and the government. I was pretty baffled and told the official that I would think it would be up to the individual person to decide whether or not to share her story with me and ask for my help. So then he brought down the iron fist and said that the government would not allow me to counsel refugees without permission from above (which I am unlikely to get, let alone in sufficient time for me to do something before I leave). I have the option to go ahead and counsel refugees on my own—after all they certainly have the right to speak freely with whomever they like. But I am not flying solo here, I work for an organization which must try and maintain a working relationship with the government so I don’t know what will happen. I have a meeting scheduled with
This is my friend Nelson's mother, who gave me the basket.
the commissioner of the RSD (= refugee status determination) Unit; she has been extremely friendly on the phone so I have some hope, although when it comes down to it politics will reign. One thing that’s been helpful is that everyone there knows who my refugee law professor is (the one who sent me here). When I told them I attend Michigan they were all saying, “wow, you must study under James Hathaway…” How cool! Hopefully a little of his clout rubs off on me :).
I got invited to the home of a Burundian friend, which ended up being a lovely time. His mother baked a loaf of bread that was sincerely the best bread I have had since living in Annecy! And that was without all the ingredients she would normally use, like butter (which she doesn’t have access to). They also gave me a lovely traditional basket she had woven, which was so generous I almost feel guilty. They take at least a week to make, and cost a small fortune in refugee terms. She insisted that she would give me something new every time I visit their house, so I told her she better not
Nelson's mother and me
One thing to note is that the flash on my camera makes the rooms in refugees' homes look deceptively bright; they are in fact extremely dark, usually with no holes serving as windows. Some people decorate their ceilings like Nelson's family did with cut notebook paper.
or I would have to make my visits less frequent! They also gave me some celery from their tiny garden which they would not let me pay for. It really was the highlight of my week; generosity is all I have experienced at the camp so it wasn’t out of the ordinary, but it’s always so pleasantly surprising. They insisted I come back to say hi on Friday; even though I’d already had lunch with someone else in the camp they wouldn’t let me leave without having some plantains, sautÃ©ed cabbage, and black beans. And they always give me a soda! No one believes that I don’t like soda, they always think I am just being humble.
One interesting thing I learned from my Congolese friends is that traditionally people refuse to eat in the home of someone less well-off. I thought that was a humility thing (not wanting to eat someone’s food when you know they can’t afford it as easily as yourself) but it’s not: it’s because it would be deemed beneath you to eat food prepared in a poor home. So someone richer, even a relative, will either avoid visiting during meal times, or will refuse
Nelson's parents showing me their garden
Nelson's family is one of the few with their own garden plot. They manage to grow banana trees and celery.
food if offered it! So it's seen as very humble to eat in the home of someone poor.
is not nearly as big in Rwanda and Burundi as it is in surrounding countries, though living in Malawi refugees from those places have all gotten used to eating it every day. We had (another) farewell party for the outgoing country director and I got to try some new camp treats, like fried dough (which they call beignets
but which are far less sweet) and soy meatballs (which were really yummy). The hosts of the party were the group of students going abroad to study this year (including Sourire and Patrice), and every single one of them insisted on taking a photo with me. It took at least twenty minutes to get that done with multiple cameras. Another paparazzi moment! The country director had already gone through the same thing before I arrived :). Then the students sang a song they had written for her, which was really lovely. Many of them sing in church choirs here so they can really harmonize.
Next week I will be taking the minibus to the camp for the first time, since
I need to go on non-camp days to do some interviews. It takes about an hour in the trusty car, and about 2.5 hours on the minibus! Should be interesting, especially the portion on the dirt road. Our big SUV is a bumpy mess on that road, I can't imagine what it will be like in one of those rickety old things. I'll be sure to have a sore bum the rest of the week!
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