Rwandan refugee orphan boy heads for a new life in Norway

UNHCR helps a young orphan from Rwanda find a new home in Norway after a lonely and peripatetic childhood in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Refugee children from Rwanda at a camp in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Nicolas was given the chance to resettle from the DRC to Norway.  © UNHCR/A.Hollmann

KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, June 23 (UNHCR) - Nicholas* has spent most of his lonely life being moved from one substitute family to another. But earlier this month the six-year-old orphan flew to what should become his permanent home - the first unaccompanied minor to be resettled from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Norway.

The UN refugee agency had referred the young boy's name for resettlement and UNHCR staff were there last Wednesday to send him off from Kinshasa's N'Djili International Airport to join his new family in Norway. Nicolas, naturally, was apprehensive about flying on a plane and going to a new country.

But resettlement in Norway offers him a much brighter future than he would have in the DRC and he will finally get a family to call his own and to love unconditionally.

It has been a long journey; one that began years before he was even born. Conflict in the Great Lakes region forced both his parents to flee to the eastern DRC in the 1990s - his father from Burundi and his mother, Josephine,* from Rwanda, after her own father was murdered in front of her.

She wandered the country, spending some years in a centre for unaccompanied minors in Mbandaka, a city on the Congo River and capital of DRC's Equateur province. Nicolas was born in Equateur in 2004, not long after his father was killed in a hunting accident. He took his mother's Rwandan citizenship.

A year later Nicolas and his mother moved to Kinshasa. But she led a troubled life and the boy was often left in the care of Josephine's friends when she was in hospital or prison. In February this year, she died of disease aged just 27.

During her final stay in hospital, a student showed up with Nicolas and a small suitcase at the UNHCR office in Kinshasa and said he had been asked to look after the boy but could not cope. Many fruitless efforts were made to find a new family for Nicolas.

He was temporarily accommodated in a reception centre for children while waiting for a durable solution. That came when his request for resettlement was approved a few weeks ago.

His new family will find Nicolas to be smart, full of character, very active and inquisitive. During the preliminary interviews for his resettlement, he longed for the questions to end so that he could go back and play with his new friends at the reception centre.

When he was told he would be going to a place called Norway, he said: "But it is far! How am I going there?" When he was told he would have to go by plane, he thought it would be expensive and asked, "Who will pay? Is UNHCR going to pay?" If he keeps asking questions in his new homeland, he should go far.

In Norway he will have a direct link to his motherland. Also on the plane for resettlement in Norway was Sabine,* a 55-year-old dressmaker from the same village that Josephine came from in Rwanda.

The middle-aged woman and the child met during preparations for their flight to a new life and became close. Sabine took it upon herself to teach him about Rwandan culture and tell him stories about his country of origin. Nicolas is being resettled in the same city as Sabine.

There are currently some 80,000 Rwandese refugees living in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, according to official figures. Since 2001, UNHCR has facilitated the repatriation of more than 94,000 Rwandese refugees from the DRC. Under a tripartite agreement signed last February, the DRC, Rwanda and UNHCR agreed to search for durable solutions for Rwandese refugees in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and for Congolese refugees in Rwanda.

* Names changed for protection reasons

By Celine Schmitt in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo