"Beauty" brings confidence and hope to Congolese refugee woman

News Stories, 15 April 2013

© UNHCR/S.Namugenyi
Rosette Wabenga [in white trousers]gives tips to girls on hair-dressing in her salon located in one of the slums in Kampala. The salon hardly receives any customers but the girls are inspired by the respected Rosette and are eager to learn from her about setting up a business.

KAMPALA, Uganda, April 15 (UNHCR) Few customers come to the simply named Beauty Salon in Kampala's Kisenyi slum, but for refugee owner Rosette Wabenga, it is still a dream come true.

"I am a very lucky woman to have this shop," Wabenga says. "Words cannot express how grateful I am to UNHCR. They have helped me fulfil my dream," she adds, referring to a small-business loan that the refugee agency helped secure.

She has travelled on a harrowing journey to achieve even a modicum of success. "It has been a painful journey, with a lot of trauma and sadness," the single mother of three says, wiping away a tear.

The last time she saw her husband, a political activist, he was being dragged away by armed men who broke into their home in Goma, eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). He was thrown in jail in 2006 and she's not heard from him since.

"There were gunshots all over so I had to flee from home with my children," Wabenga says, recalling the events of seven years ago. She was lucky enough to meet a truck driver who brought the family to Uganda. He dropped them at a church on the outskirts of the Ugandan capital, Kampala.

"I was so lost in this new town," Wabenga reveals. "But I knew that only God would save me through this new journey that I had taken." Someone at the church steered her in the right direction to apply for refugee status.

Wabenga, now 37, found a job as a restaurant waitress, but it did not pay enough to support her family. "Back home I was a hairstylist and here in Uganda I was working as a waitress," she said. "This is not what I wanted, this was not my dream."

So she decided to seek help at Interaid, a counselling, health and legal aid service funded by UNHCR that last year alone assisted more than 19,000 refugees. They needed help in areas ranging from asylum and physical disability to education and livelihood support.

It took two years, but Wabenga did not give up. Every day she woke up at 6:00 am and went to the InterAid office. "I actually made friends with the staff, the guards and the other refugees," she notes. "I knew what my goal was [to open a salon] and I was not about to give up."

After all she had suffered in DRC, Kampala did not turn out to be the safe haven she had hoped. In 2010, Wabenga was kidnapped by three men, thrown into a car, and driven away. All she remembers is waking up in a Kampala hospital where doctors told her she had been raped. Her attackers have never been found.

InterAid "put my life back on track even when I thought I could not go on," she says, recalling the counselling the agency provided.

Finally she hit on a winning business proposal that netted a start-up loan from InterAid of US$320 and let her finally open Beauty Salon. Here she not only braids hair, but also earns money training other hairdressers on behalf of InterAid and UNHCR. In addition to being able to work in her chosen field again, her salon has brought other benefits.

"I have gained a lot of respect from my neighbours and community," Wabenga says proudly. "They know where my money comes from and they have supported me too. One day I will be successful with my hard work."

By Sophie Namugenyi in Kampala, Uganda