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'Camp president' uses leadership role to empower and inspire refugees in Tanzania

Tanzania. celebrating refugee women.

'Camp president' uses leadership role to empower and inspire refugees in Tanzania

Highly educated and leading a camp of over 150,000 residents, Congolese refugee leader is a symbol of hope for many
7 March 2019
Congolese refugee and chairperson of Nyarugusu camp, Angelique Abiola, shows the High Commissioner some handicrafts made by refugee women in the camp.

In a refugee camp of over 150, 000 refugees, it can be difficult to stand out. But for Angelique Abiola, 48, being prominent is part of her daily life. Her formidable reputation and easygoing manner precede her as nearly everyone in the camp knows her.

“They call me Camp President here,” laughs Angelique.

Born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Angelique fled to Tanzania 12 years ago after members of her family were killed at the height of the conflict in the DRC. Armed with her Diploma in Education, Angelique found work as an incentive worker in one of the camp hospitals in Nyarugusu as a HIV/AIDS counsellor.

However, her eagerness to continue with her education made her restless. She applied for a DAFI scholarship – the Albert Einstein German Academic Refugee Initiative – and was successful. In 2003, she obtained an advanced Diploma in Information Technology at the Institute of Finance and Management in Dar es Salaam. Not one to rest on her laurels, Angelique applied for another scholarship five years later and was once again successful, this time studying for a postgraduate Diploma in Human Resources. 

“When you are a refugee feel like grabbing every opportunity ahead of you.”

“When you are a refugee woman who has run away from home and lost relatives and property, you feel like grabbing every opportunity ahead of you,” she says. “So when I heard of this scholarship I did not think twice. I applied and luck was on my side.”

In 2014, Angelique seized yet another opportunity when it presented itself – that of leading the camp as its chairperson. Although she was to hold the position for four years, she was encouraged by many people to run for another term.

As the only female candidate vying for the top leadership position in the camp, she had a lot of support from the community.

“I was so encouraged by my friends and family so I contested. I thought of my education and how it can add value to the community,” she adds with a smile.

Despite some discouragement from others who felt it would be difficult to run against the men, she remained steadfast.

“People wanted me to remain in my position because they believe in my leadership,” she explains.

She secured 70 per cent of the votes, making her victory even sweeter the second time around.

“I knew I had the leadership skills and people were happy with what I was doing but I did not know people liked me that much,” she says. “I felt trusted, respected and loved by all the refugees.”

As the Chairperson of Nyarugusu Camp, which hosts more than 150,000 refugees, Angelique has a great task. She leads almost 600 camp leaders who are nominated by refugees in an electoral process, conducted and observed by UNHCR’s camp management partner in Nyarugusu, the Norwegian Refugee Council.

“We see Angelique as a mother trying to find food for her children whenever she stands up and represents us.”

Angelique’s toughest challenge yet came in 2015 at the height of the Burundian influx when the camp received over 70,000 Burundian refugees.

“This was a very difficult time for me,” she recalls. “I was used to leading about 60,000 Congolese in Nyarugusu but when Burundians arrived, I found myself leading over 130,000 people from different cultural backgrounds.”

Tanzania. Celebrating refugee women
Camp chairperson Angelique Abiola speaks to women in Nyarugusu camp, Tanzania

Undeterred, Angelique was motivated to put what she had learnt in her Human Resources postgraduate course into practice. “I gained a lot from this course on industrial behavior which was about dealing with people in the organization you are working in,” she says.

This approach has earned her many supporters.

“We see Angelique as a mother trying to find food for her children whenever she stands up and represents us in front of the government and other organizations,” says Ndaisenga Sabimana, a Burundian refugee living in Nyarugusu. “She is always by our side and presents our issues in a well-organized way. We are blessed to have her.”

UNHCR recognizes the important role that refugee leaders like Angelique play in the camp.

“Being a refugee leader in the camp is not easy, but Angelique has acted as a strong link between refugees and humanitarian agencies,” says George Tibaijuka, UNHCR’s Assistant Protection Officer in Kasulu.

For Angelique, money is not a motivating factor.

“Many people could not believe a woman could lead but I proved them wrong.”

“Some people think I benefit financially from my position but that isn’t the case,” she explains. “It is part of leadership to make people understand what I really do. I do this because it is my passion and people respect me as a result. I feel valued because I am a woman and educated too.”

Angelique admits that her first year as Chairperson had its own difficulties.

“Many people could not believe a woman could lead but I proved them wrong.”

She adds that when people come to visit Nyarugusu they compare her with some renowned female African leaders.

“Now they compare me to former presidents like Ellen Sirleaf Johnson and Joyce Banda,” she chuckles. “I keep telling myself that I will get there one day.”

Angelique’s main goal is to empower people, especially women. She continues to actively campaign for women to take up leadership positions in the camp.

“I want to see women in the same position as men,” she says. “I do not want them to look back someday and regret any lost opportunities. I want them to wake up.”