Pen pal project links Burundian refugees to students in France

Primary school students in Paris are making new friends and getting an insight into the lives of Burundian refugee children in Tanzania's Mtabila Camp under a project launched earlier this year. The project is also getting support from France's prestigious Sciences Po institute.

For these Burundian refugee children in Mtabila camp in Tanzania, knowing that young people in another continent care about them and their plight means more than just having a pen pal somewhere abroad.   © UNHCR/M.Bülow-Olsen

MTABILA REFUGEE CAMP, Tanzania, June 30 (UNHCR) - Primary students in Paris are making new friends and getting an insight into the lives of Burundian refugee children in this camp under a project launched earlier this year.

Supported by UNHCR in Tanzania and France, the pen pal project is aimed at promoting tolerance and giving the French students a better understanding of the daily life of refugees and education for the uprooted.

Primary students at Vandrezanne school in south-east Paris are taking part, while graduate students at the capital's prestigious Sciences Po (Institute of Political Studies) have sold cookies to raise money to send a digital camera to the camp and have developed a website (http://projetrefugie.wordpress.com) for the project. The camera allows the refugees to send digital images of themselves over the internet, which is accessible at the camp.

Since March, the Vandrezanne students have been exchanging letters, poems and drawings with the Burundian children at Mtabila, which was visited earlier this month by UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres.

The sketches depict persecution, intolerance, fear, flight and life in exile. Their letters tell of the hardship and sacrifices refugee families have to make to send their children to school. "We never imagined a child's life could be so hard," said one of the Vandrezanne pupils, who have also produced a book on refugees to be sold at the next school fair.

"We are very happy about the project - we got to know each other well," said 17-year-old Isaac Ndayishimiye. He is one of 10 refugee children taking part in the project, which opens a channel for their voices to be heard overseas and brings benefits such as text books collected by the students in Paris.

The enthusiasm and friendship shown by their French counterparts also gives the Burundian youth more hope for the future - apt in a year when World Refugee Day was celebrated earlier this month under the theme of "Hope." The children here say being a refugee is not easy, but knowing that young people on another continent care about them and their plight makes a great difference.

Mtabila camp, located in Tanzania's north-western Kigoma region, provides shelter for some 54,000 Burundian refugees. Most fled from their nearby homeland in the early 1990s, seeking sanctuary from the Hutu-Tutsi violence which left some 300,000 people dead, mostly civilians.

Vandrezanne teacher Alain Michel, whose students took part in the project, said it has been a great success. "The letters and drawings of the Burundian children really opened their eyes to the challenges refugees worldwide are facing," he said, adding that he hoped to continue the project with another group of students next year.

Meanwhile, the Sciences Po students are also creating a CD-ROM which could encourage other schools to launch similar projects.

By Marie-Ange Lescure in Paris
and Mia Bülow-Olsen in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania