"I know I can be someone some day"

Despite being a born a refugee, young woman in Malawi has hope for her future


22 year old Siwema Gyslaine Irambona studying for her diploma in social work at Jesuit Refugee Services online university in Dzaleka refugee camp in Malawi.  © UNHCR/Tina Ghelli

Dzaleka refugee camp, Malawi - The life of 22 year old Siwema Gyslaine Irambona mirrors the past two decades of the history of the Great Lakes Region, one of people fleeing unrest and violence running back and forth across the borders of neighbouring countries, seeking protection and solace in camps. Families have returned home only to have to flee again a few years later, a new cycle of refugee flight to protection starting afresh. Irambona was born in a refugee camp near Uvira in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1996. Her parents fled from their home province of Cibitoke in Burundi when fighting became intense. 

Before she was two years old, she became an orphan when the refugee camp was attacked and both her parents were killed. She was taken in by her uncle who raised her as one of his own. He himself had grown up in Rwanda as a refugee and had married a Rwandan. Her adoptive parents had four children of their own plus four of her other cousins that they took in when their parents also died. After continually being harassed because of their mixed background, the uncle decided to leave Burundi and find a more peaceful place to live.

They fled to Tanzania but as camps were being closed there, they continued on to Malawi, ending up in Dzaleka refugee camp in 2009.

As a teenager arriving in a new place, Irambona didn’t understand why they had to move so often but she did her best to try to fit in in her new environment.  She threw herself into her studies at the secondary school in the camp, graduating in the top of her class in 2012.  She desperately wanted to further her education and thanks to the Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS) programme in the camp, Jesuit Commons: Higher Education in the Margins (JC:HEM)  which offers tertiary education to students.

She completed two of the Community Service Learning Tracks, offered by the programme, including the Performing Arts Track and Community Health Track.  Each track is a nine month course that consists of six months of classroom training and three months of practical training in the Dzaleka community.

Meanwhile, her uncle and his family were accepted and resettled to Australia, departing in mid 2016.

Irambona and her four cousins, Innocent 22, Vestine 21, Emmanuel 18, and Eduard 15, were left to start their young adult lives on their own. Luckily, around that time she was accepted into the JC: HEM online university diploma course in the camp to study social work.  

“I feel good when I’m doing work in the community. So many people helped me when I came to the camp as a refuge. I am who I am now because of them and I want to help other people too,“ says Irambona.

She also started working as a volunteer interpreter for UNHCR in August 2016 which gives her a small stipend every month to help support herself and her cousins.

Siwema Gislaine Irambona, 22, translating for UNHCR staff in Dzaleka refugee camp.   © UNHCR/Dorothy Kachitsa

“Working as an interpreter is also extremely rewarding, says Irambona. “I live in a community of so many different people who don’t know English but because of my upbringing I can speak Swahili, Kirundi/Kinyarwanda, Chichewa (Malawi’s local language) and English.  I am proud that I can help UNHCR officials and the refugees in my community to understand each other.”

Studying and working part time helps keep her focused on her goals despite the challenges she faces in the camp.

“The worse part of being a refugee is not having enough clothes or food. My cousins are also in school so I am the main bread winner.  My cousin Vestine and I are constantly pushing away men who try to take advantage of us. We pray to God a lot and that comforts us.”

“Young people in the camp are constantly at risk and without many possibilities to advance they have to really be strong to move forward with their lives. With only enough funding to provide basic lifesaving assistance in the camp, it is hard to invest in education programs and training and that’s why we are so grateful for the JRS programme,”says Monique Ekoko, UNHCR Representative in Malawi. “Engaging young people like Siwema in educational and other opportunities really helps.”

“I love studying at the online university. It would of course be much better if I could be in a class directly like a normal university student but I am so happy with this opportunity. My wish is to finish my studies. I would love to be able to get a PhD someday. I want to become somebody who has enough skills so that I can help others. I would love to work for UNHCR,” says Irambona.

Irambona was recently selected to be one of the “refugee ambassadors” to help launch the Connectivity for Refugees project in Dzaleka camp.

With this project, she hopes not only to be able to connect with her uncle in Australia but also to be able to use the resources of the internet to help her as she continues with her studies.

“I know I can be someone someday if I’m given the opportunity,” she adds.

Dzaleka refugee camp is located some 70 km from Lilongwe and currently hosts about some 28,000 refugees and asylum seekers, mainly from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, Somalia and Ethiopia.

See here how to help refugees like Siwema.