Rwanda: Lonely Congolese refugee finds new purpose serving travellers

Telling the Human Story, 18 June 2014

© UNHCR/S.Camia
Emmanuel Kabumba stands just outside the reception area at his new place of employment. A refugee from North Kivu province in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Emmanuel began working at the hotel in February 2014.

BYUMBA, Rwanda, June 18 (UNHCR) Emmanuel Hakizimana Kabumba never stops moving. As the new front desk manager at a hotel in northern Rwanda, he's a blur of activity as he welcomes guests with a wide natural smile, carries their luggage to their rooms, and advises them on where to get the best deal on local handicrafts.

The job is a huge achievement for Emmanuel, just 25. The young man beat out more than three dozen Rwandan applicants for the position, despite just weeks of training in a six-month hospitality programme. He is also the first refugee the hotel has hired to manage the front desk. Rwanda's government allows refugees to leave refugee camps to find work, but not all are as successful as Emmanuel.

Refugee or not, it wasn't difficult for the hotel's management to decide he should get the job. He scored 95 per cent on the final test for the position, which involved answering questions in four languages: English, French, Kinyarwanda and Kiswahili. The second candidate scored just 53 per cent.

"I was emotional. I cried," he recalls of the moment he discovered the result. "I said, 'Please God, the glory is for you, because now I can help my family.'" Emmanuel's new found pride is reflected in the ever-present gap-toothed grin on his face that belies a lifetime of loneliness.

"My past was only sadness," he says softly. "Life was not easy." Emmanuel arrived in Rwanda at the age of eight completely alone. His parents had been killed in the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A friend's mother took him in, but even surrounded by people, he still felt lonely.

"My adopted mother always said, 'You know Emmanuel, even though I adopted you, my husband's family is not happy with you.'" Emmanuel says he was ostracized and constantly reminded that he did not belong. His adoptive parents also blamed him for their eventual separation. "I always asked myself, 'Why am I alone? Why don't I have anyone?'"

Books became his comfort during his years at boarding school. "That's where my real life was," he says. During his time at school, he rarely returned to Gihembe Refugee Camp, where he still lives today.

As he dived into education, other opportunities arose. After secondary school, a job as a translator changed his life. For the first time, he met people from around the world and his confidence grew as he was able to use his languages to communicate. He had no idea how far his fluency in English, French and Kiswahili would take him.

"There is a proverb in English that says nothing happens by chance," he says, looking back on that period of his life.

Emmanuel now divides his time between his work at the hotel and heart-warming hours at home with his wife Alice, whom he married last year, and their baby daughter, Erica. "They give me great comfort," he says.

"Emmanuel is a shining example of how refugees can contribute to the communities where they find refuge," says Francois Abiyingoma, associate programme officer in UNHCR's Rwanda office. "Normally refugees prefer to go back home. But since that is not possible for every refugee, in recent years the UN refugee agency has been working with governments to find other solutions. Allowing refugees like Emmanuel to work not only boosts their individual dignity, it also helps host countries."

As his work day ends, and the sun begins to set, Emmanuel checks the time. Soon he must return to the refugee camp for the night. But with his wife and daughter waiting there for him, Gihembe camp no longer represents a childhood of solitude. "I don't feel alone now," he says with his trademark smile.

By Shirley Camia in Byumba, Rwanda