The remarkable refugee women I have met and what they have taught me

In celebrating International Women's Day, I reflect on the incredible refugee women who have shaped my views on life and what true humanity means.

The writer meets South Sudanese students Nyajok (left) and Nyajima in Ethiopia's Tierkidi camp.
© UNHCR/Catherine Wachiaya

Today is 08 March, a day dedicated to celebrating women around the world. As we take time to reflect on the essence of International Women’s Day, I can’t help but think of all the incredible women I have met while working for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.

Five years have gone by so fast since I joined UNHCR and in that time, I have met and made friends with refugee women who have impacted me deeply. These women, from different countries, with different world views and cultural backgrounds have one thing in common – they want a better world for themselves and for everyone.

In Rwanda, I met two teenage best friends that went to Paysannat L School in Mahama camp – two girls whose lives seem very different but are so similar – Anethe, a Rwandan and Bellaca, a Burundian refugee. They were both so full of life and big dreams. These girls taught me the value of friendship – true, sisterly love that has no bounds. I cannot forget how close they were and it made me even more grateful to have sisters and best friends who mean the world to me.

Rwanda. Celebrating refugee women

Burundian refugee Bellaca (left) and Rwandan, Anethe are best friends and study together at Paysannat L School in Mahama camp, Rwanda.  © UNHCR/Georgina Goodwin

And then there was Joselyn, a Burundian who works at Anethe and Bellaca’s school, running the Girls Safe Room. Every school in Rwanda has a Girls Safe Room and follows a nationwide program, Nyampinga which means “a girl with virtue.” Joselyn was soft spoken yet confident and explained in the most beautiful way how the program helps keep girls in school by teaching them cultural values and encouraging them to avoid early pregnancy. Joselyn believes in Nyampinga and how it helps to create a safe space that’s conscious of the girls’ needs, allowing them to focus on their studies and their future. I was aware of how easily the girls related to Joselyn and confided in her. She reminded me of that one teacher that you could always talk to without fear.

Rwanda. The school striving to give Burundian girls an education

Burundi refugee Joselyn works in the Girls Safe Room at Paysannat L school in Mahama Camp, Rwanda.   © UNHCR/Georgina Goodwin

Then there was a beautiful wide-eyed girl with big dreams - Nyahok, a South Sudanese refugee living in Ethiopia’s Kule camp, in the Gambella region. The girl who wants to become a pilot and fly around the world. Nyahok seemed weighed down by the same grim reality that 77 per cent of the world’s refugee children face – not being able to continue to secondary school. But she had this bright spark in her eyes when she spoke about her education. I was struck by her quiet, yet steely determination. She had such strength and purity of soul that made me believe that she would succeed at anything she set out to do. There was a stirring in my soul when she sat with her younger siblings and elderly father in their grass-thatched hut and taught them English.

“I won’t accept being told I can’t continue with school.”

“I won’t accept being told I can’t continue with school,” she said. “I will continue until I complete my education.”

Nyahok reminded me why our dreams are important.

Ethiopia. Celebrating refugee women

Nyahok Reath, 17, dreams of becoming a pilot. She is determined to finish her education and achieve her dream.  © UNHCR/Clementine Malpas

In Kakuma camp where I first started working for UNHCR, I met and made many friends. I have kept Kakuma in my heart ever since and my fondest memories are of four incredible women – Queen Lisa, the Burundian singer whose petite frame defies gravity with her powerful voice. Lisa has made a name for herself as ‘Kakuma’s reigning queen of song and rap’ and lives every day to use her talent. Esther Nyakong, the South Sudanese girl who dreamt of going from camp to campus and is now on the brink of achieving her dream of going to university! I daresay that Esther taught me that anything is possible.

In meeting Mercy Akuot – a powerhouse who fights for women and girls’ empowerment and Mary Maker - a believer in education’s transformative effect, I found not only friendship but mentorship. These two South Sudanese women have opened my eyes, mind and heart to the true meaning of humanity and resilience. The ‘two Ms’ as I like to call them have taught me what it means to stand for something. To believe in something that’s bigger than yourself. To want a better life and world – not just for oneself but for others. I often wonder what I would do differently if I had the opportunity to be in their place. These girls are changing lives every day, smashing stereotypes and challenging the world to think differently about refugees. Learning from them has been a blessing and I am grateful for it.

  • The writer with her South Sudanese friends Mary Maker (centre) and Mercy Akuot.
    The writer with her South Sudanese friends Mary Maker (centre) and Mercy Akuot.  © UNHCR/Catherine Wachiaya
  • The writer with her Somali friends, Sahro, Aidhar and Suad in Kakuma camp, Kenya.
    The writer with her Somali friends, Sahro, Aidhar and Suad in Kakuma camp, Kenya.  © UNHCR/Catherine Wachiaya
  • South Sudanese student Esther Nyakong at the Morneau Shepell School for girls in Kakuma, Kenya
    South Sudanese student Esther Nyakong at the Morneau Shepell School for girls in Kakuma, Kenya © UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau
  • The writer with Burundian singer and rapper, Queen Lisa in Nairobi, Kenya.
    The writer with Burundian singer and rapper, Queen Lisa in Nairobi, Kenya. © UNHCR/Catherine Wachiaya

My three very glamorous Somali friends in Kakuma - Sahro, Aidhar and Suad taught me a lot. These ever ebullient ladies taught me how to laugh at life’s attempts to bring me down, to embrace my inner and outer beauty and to appreciate culture. I did all this willingly, learning and embracing their culture and a newfound love for henna art, dera dresses and head wraps. I carry them in my heart – a constant reminder of how to keep smiling and feel beautiful, regardless of what comes my way.

"Learning from them has been a blessing and I am grateful for it."

And in meeting South Sudanese mother of six, Sidah Hawa in early 2017, my heart broke. Sidah, 30, had just crossed into Uganda after intense fighting forced her to leave her home and walk for three days in the bush to find safety. She was hungry, tired and surrounded by her children – the youngest, Asanti, still breastfeeding. My heart went out to her as she recounted her ordeal. How could she seem so stoic, so strong despite everything she had been through? She and thousands of refugees were relocated to a new settlement in northern Uganda where, a day later, we found her already rebuilding her life! She had set up a cooking area, fetched firewood and water and was in the process of clearing her patch of land to put up a shelter. I was astonished. How on earth was she able to do all this in one day?

Uganda. Celebrating Refugee women

South Sudanese refugee Sidah Hawa stands with her youngest child, Anita, among hundreds of newly arrived refugees as they wait to be relocated to a new settlement in northeastern Uganda.  © UNHCR/ Michele Sibiloni

“I have to be strong for my children. There is no time for crying,” she said. I was at a loss. Sidah truly represents the more than 50 per cent of women and children who make up the majority of refugee populations in Africa and who bear the brunt of war and conflict, yet exhibit remarkable resilience. I will never forget Sidah’s tireless spirit – despite all she had endured, she was unwavering in her quest to rebuild her family’s life.

“I have to be strong for my children. There is no time for crying.”

I continue to be inspired by these women and many more refugee women every day. I am confident that they are truly symbolic of everything that women should be celebrated for – mentors, leaders, nurturing, resilient, inspiring and transformative.

Catherine Wachiaya is the Associate Regional Editor covering Africa Emergencies. She is based in Nairobi, Kenya.