Romania's "Oprah Winfrey" uses TV to shine a spotlight on refugees

News Stories, 5 February 2013

© UNHCR/A.Anca
Mbela Nzuzi interviews a guest on her chat show.

BUCHAREST, Romania, February 5 (UNHCR) In the bustling television studio moments before a live talk show about stress in Romanian society, host Mbela Nzuzi exudes her usual air of professionalism and warmth, and shows not a trace of nerves.

The hour-long programme, "Restart Romania," is a doddle for the 36-year-old, who faced tougher challenges starting a new life in Romania after fleeing Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) during the dictatorial rule of the late President Mobuto Sese Soko.

Today she is a TV star dubbed the Oprah Winfrey of Romania and the only African presenter on local television, whose grasp of the Romanian language has helped to boost her popularity. "I understand people's jokes here, which is very important," she says.

"People feel that I'm one of them, colour and nationality do not really come into question anymore," adds Nzuzi, who fled her home country with her husband in 1997 after he came under attack for his political activities.

The couple were offered a safe haven later the same year by Romania, which only began opening its doors to refugees in 1991 after the fall of the communist regime. There are currently more than 1,000 refugees in Romania, which in 2008 also opened Europe's first emergency transit centre in Timisoara to provide temporary shelter for refugees in urgent need of evacuation from their first asylum countries.

Nzuzi was only 21 years old and lacked a degree and employment experience when she arrived in Bucharest. She had been a housewife in Congo and left her three-year-old daughter at home with relatives. The child is now studying in France.

The hard realities of life as an asylum-seeker in a country so different to hers might have crushed Nzuzi's ambitions. She had to navigate through a web of bureaucracy in a language that was completely alien. She found everything from Romania's culture and cuisine to its freezing winters hard to cope with.

The young woman started singing in an African band named "Gloria," which she and her husband established mainly for the refugee community. They attracted little attention at first, but the breakthrough came in 1999 when UNHCR involved the group in a campaign to increase public awareness about refugees.

Things started to look up. In 2001, Gloria released a first album and the following year Nzuzi became the president of the Refugee Women's Organization in Bucharest. After a series of guest appearances on various television shows, her wit and charm landed her a job in 2005 as a presenter on "Nasul," a famous talk show.

Soon, Nzuzi's easygoing manner and generous smile, both on and off-screen, were making positive headlines, and the success of her talk show, "Ciao Mbela," saw her referred to as Romania's Oprah Winfrey, after the popular African-American media personality.

But Nzuzi's friends and colleagues say there is much more to her than being the most famous black face on Romanian television. Anca Lapusneanu, editor-in-chief of VIP magazine, calls Nzuzi "a true social model," praising her continuing involvement with refugees and her engagement with issues facing all of Romanian society.

Local media often hail the African's ability to always see "the glass half full," despite the hardships she has suffered, an outlook that gives Romanians a fresh perspective on their own lives.

"She attracts attention as soon as she steps into a room. It's her optimism and vitality which shines through, despite having had to start from scratch here," says Lapusneanu.

"People like her are rare," says Gizella Somlea, a neighbour and friend of Mbela. "She adapted to a world which is not easy and she showed what she can do. Nzuzi made a name for herself in a place where no one knew her."

Nzuzi is still a refugee and has been back to Africa once to see her parents in Gabon, but has no plans to return. She admits that she is surprised by her success and with what she has achieved since arriving in a cold, strange Romania 15 years ago.

In that time, she has done more than any individual to raise awareness about refugees in a country that is still getting used to them. "Yes, I am proud of myself. I am a novelty in Romania," she says. "If I were in France for instance, it wouldn't have been the same they went through this experience with refugees a long time ago."

UNHCR staff member Gabi Leu has known Nzuzi ever since she and her band first worked with the refugee agency. She has only praise for this remarkable woman.

"Mbela is an outstanding example of a refugee success story after years of learning, absorbing the local culture and working hard. She is a symbol of a refugee who made it in Romania, despite the difficulties and she rarely talks about the hard times," Leu says, adding: "We always mention her when we talk about the bright side of refugee integration willingness to succeed and a huge return on the investment made in integrating refugees."

By Andreea Anca
in Bucharest, Romania




Congolese Medics on Call For Refugees

Jean de Dieu, from the Central African Republic (CAR), was on his way to market in mid-January when he was shot. The 24-year-old shepherd and his family had fled their country two months earlier and sought refuge on an island in the Oubangui River belonging to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Sometimes Jean crossed back to check on his livestock, but last week his luck ran out when he went to take an animal to market. A few hours later, in an improvised operating room in Dula, a Congolese border town on the banks of the Oubangui, medics fight to save his life.

Jean's situation is not unique. Over the past two years, war in the Central African Republic has driven more than 850,000 people from their homes. Many have been attacked as they fled, or killed if they tried to return. In neighbouring DRC, medical resources are being stretched to their limits.

Photographer Brian Sokol, on assignment for UNHCR, captured the moment when Jean and others were rushed into the operating theatre. His images bear witness to desperation, grief, family unity and, ultimately, a struggle for survival.

Congolese Medics on Call For Refugees

Human Misery in Katanga Province's Triangle of Death

People in the Democratic Republic of the Congo's Katanga province have long referred to the region between the towns of Manono, Mitwaba and Pweto as the "triangle of death." Despite the presence of UN peace-keepers and government military successes in other parts of the country, the situation in the resources-rich Katanga has been getting worse over the past two years. Conflict between a secessionist militia group and the government and between the Luba (Bantu) and Twa (Pygmy) ethnic groups has left thousands dead and forcibly displaced more than 400,000 people since 2012, including over 70,000 in the last three months. UNHCR has expressed its "deep concern" about the "catastrophic" humanitarian situation in northern Katanga. The violence includes widescale looting and burning of entire villages and human rights' violations such as murder, mass rape and other sexual violence, and the forced military recruitment of children.

The limited presence of humanitarian and development organizations is a serious problem, leading to insufficient assistance to displaced people who struggle to have access to basic services. There are 28 sites hosting the displaced in northern Katanga and many more displaced people live in host communities. While UNHCR has built some 1,500 emergency shelters since January, more is needed, including access to health care, potable water, food and education. The following striking photographs by Brian Sokol for UNHCR show some of the despair and suffering.

Human Misery in Katanga Province's Triangle of Death

Statelessness Around the World

At least 10 million people in the world today are stateless. They are told that they don't belong anywhere. They are denied a nationality. And without one, they are denied their basic rights. From the moment they are born they are deprived of not only citizenship but, in many cases, even documentation of their birth. Many struggle throughout their lives with limited or no access to education, health care, employment, freedom of movement or sense of security. Many are unable to marry, while some people choose not to have children just to avoid passing on the stigma of statelessness. Even at the end of their lives, many stateless people are denied the dignity of a death certificate and proper burial.

The human impact of statelessness is tremendous. Generations and entire communities can be affected. But, with political will, statelessness is relatively easy to resolve. Thanks to government action, more than 4 million stateless people acquired a nationality between 2003 and 2013 or had their nationality confirmed. Between 2004 and 2014, twelve countries took steps to remove gender discrimination from their nationality laws - action that is vital to ensuring children are not left stateless if their fathers are stateless or unable to confer their nationality. Between 2011 and 2014, there were 42 accessions to the two statelessness conventions - indication of a growing consensus on the need to tackle statelessness. UNHCR's 10-year Campaign to End Statelessness seeks to give impetus to this. The campaign calls on states to take 10 actions that would bring a definitive end to this problem and the suffering it causes.

These images are available for use only to illustrate articles related to UNHCR statelessness campaign. They are not available for archiving, resale, redistribution, syndication or third party licensing, but only for one-time print/online usage. All images must be properly credited UNHCR/photographer's name

Statelessness Around the World

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