Last month I was given the opportunity to intern with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on the border of perhaps one of the most internationally recognized countries from the past decade: The Democratic Republic of Congo. Though I was not given a chance to visit the country itself, as we were situated in Rwanda, I was surrounded by its people who seemed to be gleaming with happiness regardless of the situation that they were in.
Dear Ms Saifi,
Please find in attachment your visa acceptance.
Thank you for using our services.
You are most welcome to the country of a thousand hills and a million smiles!
“Your satisfaction is our duty”.
Rwanda Directorate General of Immigration and Emigration
When telling people that I was going to be in Rwanda for a majority of my summer, I was bombarded with gasps of awe and concern, “RWANDA? Where the genocide happened? Isn’t it utter [insert expletive] there right now? Is it safe?”
The visa acceptance letter itself was so warm and welcoming-how could it be still damaged from the genocide from the 90s?
As the Immigration officer had promised, I was in fact greeted with a thousand hills and a million smiles. Hills that seemed to be rolling for infinite miles, women walking carefree balancing several bunches of bananas on their heads, children playing with footballs wound together by thread and condoms, the smell of fresh unpolluted air sweetly embraced the village of Nyamagabe. Southwest of the capital Kigali, Nyamagabe seems very small, but it gleamed with an unimaginable amount of historical vitality. From the time of the end of the genocide, the district of Nyamagabe has managed to pick itself up and refuel their priorities. For example, prisoners in Rwanda regardless of their crime are committed to working for the community. Everyday the streets and fields would catch a glimpse of a troop of men in orange conducting tasks to enhance the state of their society.
Working at the UNHCR field camp, I was not in contact with many Rwandans; rather I was surrounded by thousands of Congolese refugees. As an intern one of my jobs was to teach Congolese refugees. I took on this task hoping that it would be easy, imagining in my mind a small group of youngsters and a book of fairytales. However, upon reaching the classroom I was greeted by forty students that all seemed to my age or older. Abruptly feeling shy, I gave a quick introduction and began rambling on about the Arab Spring. All of their attention was focused on me as they took notes and asked questions with surging interest. I suddenly became more comfortable and spoke to them as if I had known them for months.
After the first class the head of the school told me that the students I was working with were in a special program as they were having extra difficulty adjusting from a French-Congolese system to an English-Rwandan school system. Surprisingly, the majority of them knew more economics, history, and geography than I did but the only thing holding them back was the language barrier. A fellow intern decided to test them by giving them a homework assignment to write about their ‘dream’.
When the responses slowly started to come in, written in script that seemed as if it could have been a font, they spoke of dreams, mostly dreams of being educated, and becoming leaders of the camp, and even the World! They thanked us for providing them with the education that they needed, and they promised themselves to continue to learn and improve their skills.
Stories like this have been told time and time over from people around the World, however, these students had a glint in their eyes, so sincere and passionate that I prayed for every single one of their dreams to come true, at least to a certain extent. Regardless of them having no permanent home and having to leave behind their entire lives, these students wanted nothing more than to have an education to ensure that their futures and those of their friends and families would be bright and satisfying.
Today we see Congo being shredded to pieces on the news, and here I saw the souls of Congo learning and striving to make their country better through education. Hopefully these young leaders will continue to strive to reach their dreams to return to their homes, and make a difference.
M Lyla Saifi
Image Credits: M Lyla Saifi and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees