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Q&A: Congolese asylum seeker struggles to survive in Burundi capital


Q&A: Congolese asylum seeker struggles to survive in Burundi capital

Mbila Bilele is one of 10,000 Congolese refugees and asylum-seekers who live in the Burundian capital, Bujumbura. She finds it a constant struggle to make ends meet and provide for her children.
22 July 2009 Also available in:
Mbila with one of the boxes of goods that she tries to sell to market vendors in the Kinama neighbourhood of Bujumbura.

BUJUMBURA, Burundi, July 22 (UNHCR) - Mbila Bilele is one of 10,000 Congolese refugees and asylum-seekers who live in the Burundian capital, Bujumbura. The 34-year-old widow, who has applied for refugee status, and her three children reside in the poverty-stricken suburb of Kinama. Like many other urban refugees and asylum-seekers, she finds it a constant struggle to survive in the capital of one of the world's poorest countries. She recently spoke to UNHCR External Relations Officer Andreas Kirchhof. Excerpts from the interview:

When did you come to Burundi?

In 2004. I fled from Goma [capital of North Kivu province in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo] with the children . . . My husband joined us here a year later. Then he fell ill and died one year after he arrived in Burundi. Since then, we have been alone. I am not thinking about going back. I have no husband and my parents are dead as well. I would rather try to make it here.

What do you do to survive?

I try to eke out a living as a small-time trader. In these three [cardboard] boxes, there are instant soups, matches, plastic bags and many other items. I take them to the market and sell them to the vendors there. I can earn up to 5,000 Burundian francs (about US$4) on a good day. But some days I don't have any clients.

Right now, I sell enough to feed my three children [aged five, eight and 10 years]. But I cannot afford to send them to one of the private schools for Congolese, which cost about 15,000 francs for a three-month term. That's on top of what you must pay for school uniforms and books. I had to put them in a public school, which is free. Now, as the lessons are in Kirundi and not their native Swahili, they have difficulties keeping up.

What are the biggest problems Congolese refugees face in the city?

Life has become more and more expensive over the last few years; you need more and more money. And I get the impression that money is worth less and less. Some people in this neighborhood eat once every two days, or they ask others to help them. Paying the rent is another challenge. This hut, with two small rooms, costs me 10,000 francs per month, but there is no electricity and water. Also, this neighbourhood is not very safe. At night there are many bandits, who can enter into people's homes and take their belongings. Some women have been raped. But we stay here because it is less expensive.

Are there refugees who are worse off then you?

Yes. Some of the women here in Kinama have to prostitute themselves to make a living . . . they do it because they have no choice.

Do you receive any assistance?

Lately, we have received UNHCR school kits, some clothes and milk powder. We are also getting some support for medical costs from UNHCR, but sometimes I still find it difficult to get proper treatment for the children when they are ill.

What would you need to make life easier?

I already have a plan. I have asked Handicap International [UNHCR's partner in the urban refugee programme in Burundi] for support to start an association with four other refugee women. If our project is approved, we will be able to increase our capital and sell more products in the market . . . Many refugees ask for this kind of assistance.

What is your biggest hope for the future?

To be able to help my kids grow up in a good environment and to give them an education. To have enough food to eat and to live in a better house. Just to lead a decent life.

By Andreas Kirchhof in Bujumbura, Burundi



The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was established on 14 December 1950 by the United Nations General Assembly. The agency is mandated to lead and coordinate international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee issues. It strives to ensure that everyone has the right to seek asylum and find safe refuge in another state, with the option to voluntarily return home when conditions are conducive for return, integrate locally or resettle to a third country. UNHCR has twice won the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1954 for its ground-breaking work in helping the refugees of Europe, and in 1981 for its worldwide assistance to refugees.