When you think of a refugee camp, you think of people in need, people who carry ration cards, people who can barely depend on themselves, people in poverty, people who are dirty, people who don’t even have a home to call their own.
That’s not what I found when I was in Osire. I found poets, businessmen, musicians, thespians, activists, teachers, leaders.
I want you to meet Papa Mbikay, a writer whose deepest desire is to leave a footprint where he treads. A refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Papa Mbikay fled his country when he wrote about the regime in the Congo. He is an elder in the community, and won a grant this year to start a mushroom cultivation project to help with employment in the community. He already ingeniously and meticulously grew 3 batches of mushrooms in the past three years.
A philosopher, he knows that knowledge is power and wants to use that power in Osire.
I want you to meet Gabriel, a 17 year old, who worked as a translator with us, also from the DRC who dreams of being a pilot. Outspoken and inquisitive, Gabriel has a fierce spirit that wants to understand how to make his community better. I remember when we were sitting in a small bench during lunch and him asking tough questions about the role of men and women in the household, culture and how do we go from here to protect women’s rights in community.
Gabriel is also a singer. When he sings, he sings with a smile and closes his eyes so he can focus on the words. He plays the piano. We sing, “Come now is the time to worship, Come, now is the time to raise your heart.”
He sings and this uplifts my soul. In the midst of losing his parents and waiting to hear about his refugee status from the Namibian government, he sings, and calls me to come, for now is the time to worship and raise our hearts.
I want you to meet Haki Zimana, the entrepreneur who has started his own business in Osire, and has made enough money to support his family of 4 and pay for his own education at the University of Namibia. He was born in exile in Rwanda in 1977 and fled the country with his elder brother, travelling from Rwanda to DRC to Angola and then to Namibia – while being chased by a rebel group the whole time. He is studying to become a nurse because he remembers being helpless running through jungle after jungle, watching death and disease consume his fellow refugees.
I want you to meet Mama Isabel, a woman I admire and love. She has lived in Osire for 10 years now, a role model and activist in behalf on her community, especially for women. She is exactly what this community needs and has already begun to live for that change.
A widow after the death of her husband at the hands of the government in the DRC, she fled to Namibia and is vice president of the Refugee Representative Committee in Namibia – the first woman to take office. In Osire, she has to defend being called a prostitute and accept looks from men who tell their wives not to talk to her for fear of them leaving the home. Confident and kind, she knows almost each family by name and fights on their behalf. She wears a “Forced Sex is Violence Against Women” tee-shirt and welcomes a discussion among the men on what forced sex is and what are the traditional men and women roles in the household. She took Gabriel’s questions seriously when the other men shot his questions down. She said, “We have to answer his questions, if not he’ll just grow up not knowing. We have to answer them now.”
Mama Isabel believes in the power of the youth, and started a Youth Ambassador’s program to help the young in Osire uplift themselves through mentoring and sharing of mutual life experiences.
I want you to meet the Osire Youth Group. They are spunky, fun, daring and passionate. I was most privileged to sit in the audience of the Osire Youth Group performance yesterday. The group began with a powerful drama piece that addressed the issue of HIV in the community and the increasing teenage pregnancy that pains many community members. Teenage pregnancy (Girls between the ages of 14 to 18) is estimated to be as high as 65% in Osire.
They are real. Real with their own struggles, real with who they are and real with where they want to go in life. They believe they have power and I saw that yesterday. I saw the power of the young people yesterday and almost cried because they stood for everything I ever believed about what change is and what we need to do.
I didn’t get to listen to all their stories but I know for sure that each one will touch your heart. The way they sang, they rose above the pain of being a refugee and for a moment, believed that “To show power is to love.” The Osire Youth Group wrote the play themselves, planned it, acted it, and practiced it so that what we saw was perfect. But they almost never have the chance to perform it, maybe once a year on Refugee Day on June 20, 2010. They want to be heard, they want to be seen. Maybe it is for that one day in the whole year that they can show the world- not even, show the town, who they are, their struggles being young refugees, young refugees who are so passionate and excited about change.
I’m struggling a lot with this as a young person myself. What is our role in this? How can we as young people support each other? I still have so many questions unanswered.
My friends, this is Osire, the refugee camp.
This is Osire, the place where people have ran for fear of losing their life.
This is Osire, where there is great wisdom but little opportunity to share it.
This is Osire, where there is great strength and potential within but lack of opportunity.
This is our world. There is so much strength within it. Maybe we just need to find that same strength within ourselves to be part of that change in whatever way we can.
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