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Visiting students get into refugees' good books in Zambia

Visiting students get into refugees' good books in Zambia

A group of American undergraduates has started a 25,000-book library and Internet café in Zambia's Meheba refugee settlement as part of an initiative known as FORGE, or Facilitating Opportunities for Refugee Growth and Empowerment.
8 August 2005
A visiting American student at the new library in Meheba refugee settlement in Zambia.

SOLWEZI, Zambia, August 8 (UNHCR) - Forget detention or after-class questions. Students at Meheba High School now have another reason to stay back after school - a huge library and Internet café.

The school, which caters to about 600 children at Meheba refugee settlement in the Solwezi district of north-western Zambia, has just set up the new facilities with help from a group of American university students from FORGE, or Facilitating Opportunities for Refugee Growth and Empowerment.

Stocked with 25,000 books on subjects ranging from the educational to the sciences and fiction, the library could be one of the best-stocked and biggest in a refugee camp in Africa. The library also has three computers for an Internet café, which, for a nominal fee, serves both the refugees and the host community in and around the settlement.

All the books and computers were donated by the American public to FORGE Ambassadors, who come from different universities throughout the United States.

Thomas Silverman, their team leader in Meheba, says he hopes the library and Internet café will fill the information gap in the settlement. In return, the visiting students are learning a lot about the refugee experience.

"When we arrived, we expected a typical refugee camp with tents," says Esther Charles, a FORGE Ambassador. "But this is a settlement which has been in existence since 1971, thus it's well established and people seem settled. We like the work we're doing and the response from the refugees and the implementing partners. It's cool here."

Fellow Ambassador Danielle Scaramellino explains that FORGE Ambassadors raise funds and solicit other in-kind donations from the American public to develop their own micro projects.

"For me, I am doing an art project at the Meheba Crafts Centre," she says. "My colleague Esther is also starting up the journalism project to launch a community newspaper."

The 16-page English-language community newspaper will be launched this month, with articles contributed by students, UNHCR and other staff in Meheba.

Maria Antonnette, a 16-year-old member of Meheba High School's Junior Journalists Association, says she's very happy that the newspaper will help the students in Meheba to hone their writing technique - useful skills whether in exile or upon repatriation.

At its peak, Meheba refugee settlement hosted 50,000 refugees, but since the start of organised returns to Angola in 2003, the population has dropped to about 20,000 today. Most of them are from Angola, with smaller numbers from Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Somalia and Uganda.

In addition to Meheba, FORGE also runs projects in Zambia's Kala and Mwange refugee camps, including education focusing on youths as catalysts for social change, HIV/AIDS education, literacy, creative arts and family counselling.

"At FORGE, we are committed to ensuring that we do as much as possible to help the refugees in Zambia through various projects we have embarked on," explains team leader Silverman.

Equipped with 25,000 books, the Meheba High School library could be one of the biggest and best-stocked libraries in Africa's refugee camps.

UNHCR Regional Representative in Zambia, Ahmed Said Farah, commended FORGE's work: "We always appreciate various initiatives taken by our non-traditional donors to support refugees, and we are greatly indebted to FORGE for choosing Zambia for such support."

And they're not stopping there - these student ambassadors have also worked in Dukwi refugee camp in Botswana, and look set to forge ahead in their mission to help refugees worldwide.

By Kelvin Shimo
UNHCR Zambia