To stay or not to stay: a young Congolese refugee opts for a life in Gabon
LIBREVILLE, Gabon, Aug 3 (UNHCR) - Anita is old enough to remember her homeland, the Republic of Congo, but at a pivotal time in her life she has decided to settle in Gabon after spending half her 26 years here.
It's a choice that thousands of other Congolese in Gabon will have to make after formally losing their refugee status at the end of last month. UNHCR and the government here expect that most of the 9,300 Congolese refugees and asylum-seekers will opt to stay in Gabon.
Some 1,300 have so far applied for residence permits, giving them the right to stay and to work, but not yet to apply for citizenship. About 400 have applied to return home and UNHCR has a programme to encourage more to repatriate.
Anita received hers on July 26. She lives in the capital, Libr ville, with her Ghanaian partner and has decided that her future is here in Gabon, rather than the alien land to the south that she, her mother and two siblings fled from in 1998 during a short but devastating civil war.
"My life is here," she said firmly after completing the final procedures for her residence permit at the headquarters of the General Directorate of Documentation and Immigration (DGDI). She beamed with happiness as she left the building clutching her permit, which makes her future easier.
The immigration office is issuing about 40 residence permits every day. The recipients will now be treated as migrants rather than refugees.
This comes at a time when UNHCR has stepped up the voluntary repatriation programme, including putting on more return convoys and doubling the grant (to US$200 for adults and US$50 for children) offered to those who opt to go back to the Republic of Congo.
Despite her decision to stay, life has often been difficult for Anita in Gabon. She came to the country aged 13, living in the southern town of Mouila. But things started to turn sour when her mother moved in with a violent Congolese boyfriend who used to beat the teenage girl.
"He would not let me go to school and then he chased me away. So I had to leave home at the age of 15," she recalled, adding in a trembling voice: "Since then, I have not seen my mother."
She stayed with friends until meeting a Gabonese woman, Aurelie, who became like a second mother. "She welcomed me home and she still calls and sends me small presents," revealed Anita, whose life in Gabon had begun looking up.
In 2006, she met her partner, a mason from Ghana called Francis who came to Mouila to build houses for local priests. He later asked Anita to come with him to Libreville, where he had a place to stay.
Encouraged by Francis, she enrolled in a vocational training course for employment in the hospitality industry. "I want to work as a receptionist in a hotel, a restaurant or a company," said Anita, who passed the course and is on a job hunt.
Meantime, she works occasionally in a hairdressing salon as well as looking after her pretty 14-month-old daughter. "I braid and weave hair," she explained. "Women call me and I go to their homes or they come to me."
This industrious, proud woman also does a bit of trading, buying and selling used clothing with her friend Aurelia in Mouila, and has clearly made a life for herself in Gabon. It's not difficult to understand why she wants to stay.
"It is not easy every day, but I'm happy," said the young mother. "It's much better to have a residence permit," she added. Her dream is to have a stable life, a good job and to provide for her children. But she still misses her mother.
Anita introduced her UNHCR visitors to a friend who has also applied for a residence permit. "This is a gift," she chuckled, before explaining the process she had been through to get it.
Although Anita has made her decision about the future, she is still curious about her home city of Dolisie in the south of the Republic of Congo and hopes to visit one day.
"The problem is that I have nobody there. My father died and although my mother returned there, I can't see her," she said. "There are parts of the flight we do not want to remember, but one day I want to see the city where I come from."
By Céline Schmitt in Libreville, Gabon