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Another angle to Angola, refugee host country

News Stories, 21 December 2004

© UNHCR/F.Bonelli
The refugee centre in Luanda runs programmes for children and youth. The colourful art works in the background are the result of one of their projects.

LUANDA, Angola, Dec 21 (UNHCR) Angola knows all about refugees. For 27 years, the country's civil war sent hundreds of thousands of Angolans fleeing into the region. As the conflict ended in 2002, the refugees started returning home, many with UNHCR assistance in a repatriation movement that was recently suspended due to the rainy season.

But a lesser-known fact about Angola is that it is also a host country for thousands of refugees from other parts of Africa, and from countries as far away as Iraq and China. Many of them are urban refugees living in the capital, Luanda, where a community centre was recently set up to help them integrate into their host community.

"We do not offer assistance, and this is not what refugees and asylum seekers want," says the centre's coordinator, Musingele K., a refugee himself. The centre's objectives are much more complex and demanding. "We teach refugees how to write CVs and applications to find employment, we help them develop their skills and attain self-reliance. We are teaching them not to expect aid but to stand on their own feet."

The centre also organises health counselling with a special emphasis on HIV/AIDS, cultural activities and children's and youth groups. UNHCR is supporting activities like language courses, micro-credit schemes and sensitisation programmes on violence against women.

There are an estimated 1,500 refugee families in Luanda. In 2004 alone, the centre was contacted by refugees more than 4,000 times. The clients are mostly from West and Central Africa, but recently even Chinese and Iraqi asylum seekers have been showing up. Many of them are highly educated, with skills that could prove useful to Angolan society.

"Most Angolans treat refugees alright, there is not much xenophobia. But the problem is that refugees are a new occurrence here and many Angolans simply do not understand what a refugee is," says Musingele. There are endless stories of police officers who arrest refugees and asylum seekers in spite of valid papers, because they are not familiar with refugee documents. Refugees often face problems with potential employers and authorities when trying to find jobs or set up businesses.

So the centre trains and informs key stakeholders in the Luandan government and corporate world. Sometimes it is enough to show them copies of the Angolan refugee law that proves refugees and asylum seekers are legally entitled to be gainfully employed or to run certain businesses.

Integration is not a one-way street. Refugee activists at the community centre address not just their fellow refugees, but also the local population. Concerts and cultural events are a good way to reach out to the music- and art-loving Angolans. A number of very successful cultural events have already been organised; more will follow. The colourful murals in the centre are the result of one of the programmes for local and refugee children.

Apart from this recently-arrived group of highly-skilled refugees, there is another more destitute group of refugees in Viana, in the outskirts of Luanda, whose problems are completely different. These are some 7,000 "old" cases of people from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and other parts of Africa who had initially sought refuge in various Angolan provinces. As the civil war raged in Angola, they were displaced for a second time, fleeing to the relative safety of the capital.

These are poor and vulnerable people. Some 80 percent are women, widows and single mothers of rural background with little or no education. Assistance to them is quite different from the kind extended to urban newcomers. They receive vocational skills training, information on general hygiene and HIV/AIDS. The most vulnerable single mothers also receive food assistance or accommodation.

Blanket food aid for all Viana refugees was stopped about two months ago. The centre's main task now is to change these refugees' attitudes. Accustomed to receiving aid, they are not used to making their own living. But in a country of great poverty, such an approach does not seem to be justifiable any longer.

Musingele says, "We now have to break this dependency syndrome. These people, especially the second generation of refugees, have to understand that they themselves have to take charge of their lives. We are helping them to develop confidence."

As the UNHCR delegation walks through the community centre in Luanda, a multilingual crowd of urban refugees gathers around the visitors, speaking French, English and Portuguese. One refugee even tries his impeccable Serbo-Croatian on the group.

"We had to flee with empty handed," says a Burundian refugee, "but we bring with us many of the skills and human resources Angola so desperately needs. They should just let us help them rebuild this country!"

While the Viana refugees may have a long way to go, the urban refugees in Luanda know what they want and how to achieve it. All they need now is to get the Angolans on board.

By Melita H. Sunjic in Angola




UNHCR country pages

Forty Years On, Antonio Goes Home to Angola

Antonio has been waiting 40 years to return to his home village in northern Angola. He fled to Democratic Republic of the Congo when the country was a Portuguese colony, and stayed away through years of civil war and during the peace that followed in 2002. Now, no longer classed as a refugee, he is finally going back.

Seated in a rickety chair in his family's rented apartment in Kinshasa on the eve of his departure, the 66-year-old Angolan was excited. "I feel joy when I think that I will go home. It's better to be a citizen of your own country than a refugee in another country. It's liberation," he said, flanked by his wife, sister and granddaughter.

Photographer Brian Sokol followed the four of them as they began their journey in Kinshasa on August 19, taking a seven-hour train journey to the town of Kimpese in Bas-Congo province and then reaching the border by bus. They were among the first group to go back home with the help of UNHCR under a third and final voluntary repatriation programme since 2002. The family faces many new challenges in Angola, but their joy was far greater than any apprehension. "I will dance when we arrive at the border," said Antonio's sister, Maria. UNHCR is organizing the return of nearly 30,000 former refugees to Angola.

Forty Years On, Antonio Goes Home to Angola

Erbil's Children: Syrian Refugees in Urban Iraq

Some of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees are children who have sought shelter in urban areas with their families. Unlike those in camps, refugees living in towns and cities in countries like Iraq, Turkey and Jordan often find it difficult to gain access to aid and protection. In a refugee camp, it is easier for humanitarian aid organizations such as UNHCR to provide shelter and regular assistance, including food, health care and education. Finding refugees in urban areas, let alone helping them, is no easy task.

In Iraq, about 100,000 of the 143,000 Syrian refugees are believed to be living in urban areas - some 40 per cent of them are children aged under 18 years. The following photographs, taken in the northern city of Erbil by Brian Sokol, give a glimpse into the lives of some of these young urban refugees. They show the harshness of daily life as well as the resilience, adaptability and spirit of young people whose lives have been overturned in the past two years.

Life is difficult in Erbil, capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. The cost of living is high and it is difficult to find work. The refugees must also spend a large part of their limited resources on rent. UNHCR and its partners, including the Kurdish Regional Government, struggle to help the needy.

Erbil's Children: Syrian Refugees in Urban Iraq

Refuge on the Sixth Floor: Urban Refugees in Jordan

For most people, the iconic image of refugees is thousands of people living in row upon row of tents in a sprawling emergency camp in the countryside. But the reality today is that more than half of the world's refugees live in urban areas, where they face many challenges and where it is more difficult to provide them with protection and assistance.

That's the case in Jordan, where tens of thousands of Syrian refugees have bypassed camps near the border and sought shelter in towns and cities like Amman, the national capital. The UN refugee agency is providing cash support to some 11,000 Syrian refugee families in Jordan's urban areas, but a funding shortage is preventing UNHCR from providing any more.

In this photo set, photographer Brian Sokol, follows eight families living on the sixth floor of a nondescript building in Amman. All fled Syria in search of safety and some need medical care. The images were taken as winter was descending on the city. They show what it is like to face the cold and poverty, and they also depict the isolation of being a stranger in a strange land.

The identities of the refugees are masked at their request and their names have been changed. The longer the Syria crisis remains unresolved, the longer their ordeal - and that of more than 1 million other refugees in Jordan and other countries in the region.

Refuge on the Sixth Floor: Urban Refugees in Jordan

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Syrian Refugees: An Urban Refugee in Turkey

There are more than 650,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey. Some 200,000 are housed in refugee camps along the border, but more than 460,000 live more precarious lives as urban refugees. One of them, Abdul Rahman, lives in the southern city of Urfa. It's been tough but the young man keeps his dreams alive.
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One Year On: Jordan's Za'atari Refugee Camp mushrooms into major urban centre. The sprawling Za'atari Refugee Camp is now Jordan's 4th largest city