Creating a future for Congolese refugees in Zambia

Creating a future for Congolese refugees in Zambia

Mar 17, 2020

Peter Ilunga, a 56-year-old refugee and father of eight from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), sits in his refugee housing unit (RHU) with a new sewing machine and bicycle. Wearing a t-shirt with the words “ZAMBIA, DRC & CZECH REP: YOU are GOOD Friends,” Ilunga recalls his arduous journey in 2018 to the Meheba refugee settlement in the North-Western Province of Zambia. “I ran away from my home in Lubumbashi, in the DRC, and arrived in Zambia more than a year ago with no job, no food, and without any means of educating my children.”

Kasampilo Kafwimbi and Kayaya Victoria Kayembe share similar stories. On a recent visit to People in Need’s (PIN) office in Meheba, the young mothers recounted how they’ve spent most of their lives as refugees in Zambia after fleeing war in the DRC. “I left DRC because of the conflict in 1993; I was one year old,” says Kayembe. “Since then, I have always lived in Meheba.”

Most of the refugees living in Meheba and other refugee camps are there indefinitely, as resettlement opportunities are limited and receiving countries continue to reduce their resettlement quotas. However, many of Meheba’s residents have difficulty securing even the most basic of needs, as most do not have tangible means to provide for themselves within the settlements.

Support to 5,800 Congolese refugees

As stipulated by Zambian law, refugees and asylum seekers are not allowed to work. Refugees are thus dependent on the government, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or non-governmental organizations for support – either in the form of cash-based interventions, non-monetary distributions, or short-term employment within camps. Faced with a dearth of opportunities for making ends meet, some refugees opt to leave Meheba to seek job opportunities illegally.

To address these challenges, PIN, with the support of the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), implemented a project called “Increasing the Resilience of Refugees and Asylum Seekers Forcibly Displaced from the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Zambia.” The project, carried out between April and December 2019, supported a total of 5,811 mostly Congolese refugees through two project modalities: unconditional cash grants, in the form of 280 Zambian kwacha per person, and a cash for work program, which offered short-term employment with financial remuneration.

The cash grants helped refugees cover the cost of basic needs, while the cash for work program aimed to provide financial assistance through employment. Jobs generally involved improvements to the community – such as the assembly of refugee housing units (RHU) for new refugees, bush clearing, and the digging of pit latrines.

I am learning so much

Kafwimbi, the mother of a boy who lives with a family of nine, and Kayembe, who lives with her two daughters in a family of eight, were two cash-for-work beneficiaries. The women worked on the assembly of RHUs for recently-arrived refugees. Kafwimbi, who participated in the program twice – and once as the only female supervisor for a cash-for-work group – says she enjoyed her work experience. “These jobs made me happy because my family members were glad that I had a job,” says Kafwimbi. “I have been living here for a very long time and I had never had any job until cash for work. I only went to primary school, so I felt very happy that I got a chance to work despite not having completed my education,” she adds.

Kayembe, who participated in the cash for work initiative once, and later was engaged by PIN as a Community Focal Point for Complaint and Feedback Response Mechanism (CFRM), had a similar experience. “My biggest challenge is that I am a single mother; the father of my children doesn´t support them,” Kayembe says. “I don´t manage to buy everything I want, and until I got a job with PIN, the money was never enough to cover all my needs.”

Given how difficult it is to find a job in Meheba, Kayembe prefers her second job, the one as a Community Focal Point for Complaint and Feedback Response Mechanism (CFRM). “The cash for work position was only for 10 days, and after that they employed other people. But with the community response mechanism, I work the whole month and am learning so much, listening to people´s suggestions and complaints and telling them about PIN´s project.”

The money has given me an opportunity to do something with my life

Ilunga also appreciates the help he’s received. “The project is a good way to support people like me who have no jobs or money,” he says. With the financial support provided by the project, Ilunga has empowered himself and his family by starting a business. “Using the money I was given, I bought a sewing machine, as I decided to become a tailor. I also used some of the money to buy a bicycle, and I shared some money with my wife so that she can start a small business.”

He adds: “The money has given me an opportunity to do something with my life. I am now hopeful for a brighter future.”

Kafwimbi is equally optimistic. “I used the money to buy mealie meal and charcoal. I also paid laborers to farm our land,” she says. “The money I earned by working with PIN has really given me a profound joy because I can now take good care of my old parents by letting them take a rest from farm work. In return, I pay the laborers.”

New skills

Perhaps most importantly, these projects have helped refugees in Zambia attain new skills that will serve them well in the future. “Learning how to set up the RHUs was a new experience for me,” says Kayembe. “Most importantly, I learned how to interact with other people as a community response leader.”

On the other hand, Kafwimbi, the only female cash-for-work supervisor, says: “Now I know how to build an RHU and to lead people effectively. As a supervisor, I know I can inspire others to work well and be nice to each other.”

Each month, approximately 200 refugees arrive in Zambia, mainly as a result of internal instability and conflict in the DRC and Angola. In May 2018, when the project began, there were 42,000 Congolese refugees and asylum seekers registered in Zambia. Among the project’s chief objectives, as Ilunga puts it, is to make a better future “for children to have a safe place to live and to go to school in peace.”

Author: Namukolo Mate and Anna Nejedlá, People in Need Zambia