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No, they're not magic, but mushrooms help refugees in Rwanda

News Stories, 13 June 2006

© UNHCR/B.Gonzalez
In a special dark growing chamber, Congolese refugees at Rwanda's Gihembe camp show off some of their prize mushrooms, which are transforming the lives of people with HIV.

GIHEMBE REFUGEE CAMP, Rwanda, June 13 (UNHCR) Marie, one of 17,000 Congolese refugees in this camp in northern Rwanda, has a more varied diet than most it includes lots of home-grown mushrooms.

"Mushrooms have a nice taste when cooked with oil, tomatoes and peanuts, which makes a nice change from our regular diet in the camp," she says with a smile.

Marie, who is HIV-positive and asked that her real name not be used, feels that "eating mushrooms is helping me to cope with the antiretroviral [ARV] medicine" she takes to prolong her life. She is one of 20 HIV patients in the camp who are benefiting from ARV treatment and food supplements provided by UNHCR and the American Refugee Council.

The mushrooms she loves so much are grown in the camp, thanks to the ingenuity of another refugee, Jacob, who fled his small village in North Kivu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo a decade ago for fear of attacks by Rwandan armed groups. (Gihembe was opened in 1997 to shelter Congolese who fled attacks against civilians in the Kivu region.)

Jacob, who also uses an alias, noticed that Gihembe's cool location on top of a hill made it an ideal place to grow mushrooms. Using knowledge gained from a community-based association in Kigali called Jyambere (Develop Yourself), Jacob enlisted 19 members of the People Living with AIDS Association (PLWA) to start a mushroom production project to enrich their diet and earn money.

The mushroom "farm" is a small, dark room adapted to this purpose, a rare plot of land in a highly populated refugee camp where there is no room for any other kind of agriculture or livestock activity.

"I like seeing the positive results of the mushroom production project," Jacob explains in good French, "since this is helping those people living with HIV/AIDS to cope with the difficult daily life that results from their weak physical conditions."

The project is supported by the American Refugee Council (ARC) a major UNHCR partner in managing camps in Rwanda and in HIV/AIDS activities.

Members of the PLWA produce 30-50 kilogrammes of mushrooms per month; they eat some themselves, and sell the rest at 1,000 Rwandan francs per kilo (about US$2) to other refugees in the camp.

With future profits, they hope to be able to buy milk and vegetables to vary their diet. While mushrooms have no magical properties, a varied diet and good nutrition help HIV-positive patients better tolerate ARV treatment, doctors say.

The association started with just six members two years ago encouraged by the good results of the mushroom project, the number has soared to 73.

"Before the association was created, people affected by HIV/AIDS in the camp were isolated due to the stigma still associated with this illness in Africa," says Jacob. "Because of this self-reliance project, more and more people are approaching us to learn more about our activities."

These include meetings where the members share their feelings and concerns. They also organize sensitization visits to households with family members affected by the illness to encourage them to join the association, and plan to help other Congolese refugees in the neighbouring camp of Nyabiheke create a similar association for people with HIV and AIDS.

Thanks to the close collaboration between UNHCR, ARC and the Rwandan authorities, Gihembe is home to a number of HIV/AIDS sensitization and prevention activities. Aside from PLWA, there are three other AIDS awareness groups working in the camp.

According to official data, only 90 people in the camp have HIV or AIDS, but consultation and testing services have been scaled-up in the camp's health centre and a new service aimed at preventing mother-to-child transmission started. A truer picture of the situation in Gihembe should soon emerge.

Meanwhile, PLWA plans to increase the quantity of mushrooms sold outside the camp, because they find Rwandans have accepted the delicacy quite well.

And as important as the mushrooms themselves is the message of hope the refugees are sending. "We hope we can be a good example for similar associations in other refugee camps in Africa to help others affected by the illness to have better living conditions, and to help fight the stigma against HIV in Africa," says Jacob.

By Beatriz Gonzalez in Gihembe Camp, Rwanda




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UNHCR/Partners Bring Aid to North Kivu

As a massive food distribution gets underway in six UNHCR-run camps for tens of thousands of internally displaced Congolese in North Kivu, the UN refugee agency continues to hand out desperately needed shelter and household items.

A four-truck UNHCR convoy carrying 33 tonnes of various aid items, including plastic sheeting, blankets, kitchen sets and jerry cans crossed Wednesday from Rwanda into Goma, the capital of the conflict-hit province in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The aid, from regional emergency stockpiles in Tanzania, was scheduled for immediate distribution. The supplies arrived in Goma as the World Food Programme (WFP), with assistance from UNHCR, began distributing food to some 135,000 displaced people in the six camps run by the refugee agency near Goma.

More than 250,000 people have been displaced since the fighting resumed in August in North Kivu. Estimates are that there are now more than 1.3 million displaced people in this province alone.

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UNHCR/Partners Bring Aid to North Kivu

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Since 2006, renewed conflict and general insecurity in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo's North Kivu province has forced some 400,000 people to flee their homes – the country's worst displacement crisis since the formal end of the civil war in 2003. In total, there are now some 800,000 people displaced in the province, including those uprooted by previous conflicts.

Hope for the future was raised in January 2008 when the DRC government and rival armed factions signed a peace accord. But the situation remains tense in North Kivu and tens of thousands of people still need help. UNHCR has opened sites for internally displaced people (IDPs) and distributed assistance such as blankets, plastic sheets, soap, jerry cans, firewood and other items to the four camps in the region. Relief items have also been delivered to some of the makeshift sites that have sprung up.

UNHCR staff have been engaged in protection monitoring to identify human rights abuses and other problems faced by IDPs and other populations at risk across North Kivu.

UNHCR's ninemillion campaign aims to provide a healthy and safe learning environment for nine million refugee children by 2010.

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Fighting rages on in various parts of the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), with seemingly no end in sight for hundreds of thousands of Congolese forced to flee violence and instability over the past two years. The ebb and flow of conflict has left many people constantly on the move, while many families have been separated. At least 1 million people are displaced in North Kivu, the hardest hit province. After years of conflict, more than 1,000 people still die every day - mostly of hunger and treatable diseases. In some areas, two out of three women have been raped. Abductions persist and children are forcefully recruited to fight. Outbreaks of cholera and other diseases have increased as the situation deteriorates and humanitarian agencies struggle to respond to the needs of the displaced.

When the displacement crisis worsened in North Kivu in 2007, the UN refugee agency sent emergency teams to the area and set up operations in several camps for internally displaced people (IDPs). Assistance efforts have also included registering displaced people and distributing non-food aid. UNHCR carries out protection monitoring to identify human rights abuses and other problems faced by IDPs in North and South Kivu.

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