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Swimming against the tide: Two refugee women's journey from Africa's Great Lakes region to Spain


Swimming against the tide: Two refugee women's journey from Africa's Great Lakes region to Spain

It's the fireworks at the fiestas that still upset Rwandan refugee Gatalina; for her, exploding gunpowder represents anything but celebration.
24 June 2003
A Syrian refugee scans her iris at a branch of Cairo Amman Bank in the Jordanian capital. Jordan is the first country in the world to use iris scan technology to enable refugees to access monthly cash assistance provided by UNHCR. Around 23,000 Syrian families living in urban areas in Jordan benefit from monthly cash assistance.

MADRID, Spain (UNHCR) - It's the fireworks at the fiestas that still upset Rwandan refugee Gatalina. Even though she has been in Spain for three years, she will never associate the sound of exploding gunpowder with anything remotely like celebration.

"It's like the sound of war. I can't sleep when there are fireworks in a fiesta," she says.

The noise takes her straight back to the ethnic conflict in her home country, Rwanda, where one of the 20th century's worst genocides occurred in 1994. The sounds also remind her of how she ended up as a refugee in Spain after an incredible journey involving horror, luck and determination, and where she was later reunited with her children, who she had been forced to leave behind in war-torn Rwanda.

About the same time, in neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC, then known as Zaire), Pauline went into hiding after her activities promoting the rights of women and children got her into trouble with the regime of the dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko. Following a dramatic escape, the Congolese refugee reached Madrid within days, but like Gatalina, she had to leave her children and two dependent sisters behind.

Gatalina's journey began in 1994, when she escaped the genocide in her native Rwanda to the DRC, where she later met her husband and set up home, having two children.

But with hundreds of thousands of Rwandan civilians fleeing the fighting, the DRC increasingly became a hiding place for those accused of genocide. It too became unsafe. Then, war broke out there as well, and in the growing climate of ethnic mistrust and confusion, Gatalina's husband became a target.

In 1998, masked men invaded their house, killed her husband and seriously wounded his brother and sister. By chance, Gatalina and her children were in another room, hiding quietly until the attackers left.

Gatalina and her children fled to the house of a friend, who advised them to split up and hide in different places. In a risky operation, she arranged for her children to live with her in-laws in Rwanda and went into hiding for six months in Uganda, unable to leave the house as she was terrified of other Rwandans in the country. The emotional trauma of her husband's murder and separation from her children left Gatalina feeling disoriented, and she admits this was her hardest time.

"I had so many problems, I had to leave my children not knowing about their whereabouts for many months," said the Rwandan refugee. In fact, the only thing that kept her going was the thought of her children. "I kept telling myself, I could die but it was necessary for me to survive for them."

Gatalina had to leave Uganda and stayed for some time in other countries without the required documents. With the help of a priest who happened to study in Spain, she managed to come to Madrid. Ironically, because the city she arrived in was so foreign and different, she felt safe. "When I arrived here, I was at ease for the first time. I believe in God and I think he was with me."

For Congolese refugee Pauline, her journey to Spain was quicker but no less traumatic. She was an active member of an organisation that promoted the rights of women and children in the former Zaire, now the DRC. In late 1994, during a weekly group meeting, she spoke about the appalling conditions at a maternity hospital in Kinshasa, and how women taking products to a market were being robbed and raped.

"It was in the time of Mobutu, we were fighting for our country. It was necessary to say something if you saw something wrong," she explains.

A journalist wrote a story about what Pauline had said. State security agents who were monitoring the media stopped the newspaper from publishing the story and paid a visit to the journalist.

Pauline recalls, "The journalist warned us to take care, because the government was looking for us. I was very frightened because, at that time, if people were arrested, they were taken away somewhere and killed."

Pauline spent a week in hiding with her colleagues, while her children stayed with her sisters. "When they (the state police) came to the house looking for me, they were asking my sister where I was and hassling her all the time."

With the help of the organisation she belonged to, Pauline left the DRC. Because the authorities were looking for her and had her photograph, it was necessary to fly out in disguise: "I had to wear lots of make-up and change my hair."

Spain was her chosen destination - rather than the French-speaking countries of France or Belgium - for the same reasons as Gatalina. "In Paris and Brussels there are a lot of people from my country and it would be very risky for me."

Both women applied for asylum in Spain. Pauline was able to bring with her documents proving that the ex-Zairean government wanted to arrest her, which were corroborated by the Belgium branch of the organisation she had campaigned for back home. She obtained refugee status in early 1995. For Gatalina, being recognised as a refugee was more difficult because she had no documents to prove her identity or her allegations. With the help of UNHCR's network in different countries, people were found who could confirm her story and she was granted asylum a year later, in 2000.

But getting themselves to safety was only the first step. After that, Pauline and Gatalina began their efforts to bring their children to Spain, under Spanish family reunification legislation. For both women, that was the start of another nerve-wracking journey of a different sort as the bureaucratic process to get their children out of danger slowly got underway.

For Rwandan refugee Gatalina, the obstacles to the family reunion process were countless. She had no identity documents to prove the link with her children, no death certificate for her husband and no possibilities to obtain these documents without putting her family at risk. Her small children had stayed behind in the care of her in-laws, who did not, however, have the legal custody over them as Spanish law demanded. Security concerns in Kigali prevented Gatalina from contacting the UNHCR office or her in-laws in Rwanda directly, but finally her sister-in-law managed to obtain legal custody over the children.

The situation was complicated further by the fact that the Spanish embassy handling the case was in Nairobi, Kenya. From Rwanda, the children had to make the trip twice, because the embassy insisted on more documentation. Events seemed to take a turn for the worst when UNHCR received an anonymous call that the children were no longer safe in Kigali.

Gatalina was getting desperate. "During that period, I couldn't sleep. I was having constant nightmares, and of course, I had huge phone bills," she recalls. Communications with Rwanda were far from secure with all links monitored by the government, she added.

On their second visit to the Spanish Embassy in Nairobi, the children finally got their visa and the Spanish Red Cross arranged the flight of the two children to Madrid. Putting two small children on a flight to Europe turned out to be more complicated than expected, and their tickets were cancelled at the last moment because the airline company did not have any stewardess available to travel with them. One day later, the children travelled to Spain, accompanied by a UNHCR staff member.

When they finally emerged from the airport's arrival lounge - almost three years after Gatalina had last seen them - it almost seemed too good to be true: "I was touching them all the time to make sure they were really there. They couldn't believe it either and were just staring at me!"

Meanwhile, Congolese refugee Pauline's children were living in very difficult circumstances with her two sisters in Kinshasa. One of the sisters was seriously disabled and the other was only 13 years old. They and her children depended fully on the money she managed to send from Spain.

Not having them with her was a constant strain: "I wasn't normal at all. The worry was there all the time. It was very difficult." It took more than two years before she was able to bring her children to Spain. She, too, was in disbelief: "I was so overwhelmed. It was such a surprise."

But she suffered a setback when she tried to bring her two sisters. The Spanish government rejected the application for family reunification as the two sisters did not meet the strict family reunion criteria. Pauline's distress was compounded by tragedy when her younger sister died in an accident, leaving her disabled sister relying on charity.

A second application to bring the remaining sister to Spain succeeded, but she feels very sad that it was too late for her younger sister. They now live in a small apartment in Madrid.

For both Gatalina and Pauline, the fact that it has been possible to be reunited with their children has been absolutely vital to go on living, as it is for most refugees.

Despite having a university qualification from their countries, both Pauline and Gatalina have encountered difficulties in finding a job to maintain their families. The jobs they manage to find are usually cleaning jobs and only for a short period of time. After all that they have been through, Gatalina finds it difficult to leave her children in the care of somebody else when she goes to work.

They value the fact that can now live in peace. "There is no war here. In my country it is 'boom, boom' all the time and you can't sleep nor go out to get food to eat," says Pauline. "But I miss the people I know and my children don't like it when it is cold".

Gatalina, too, misses her homeland and says she would like to go back one day: "Yes, of course, but if I go back the country would have to be at peace. To go back there though, it's a dream."

That doesn't, however, mean that they do not like Spain. On the contrary, their children are settled here and more importantly they feel secure.

"I am happy here, I can sleep and I don't fear things like before," says Gatalina. "The kids speak Spanish together, although I also speak to them in Kinyarwanda. But they forget some words. When they speak to my mother on the phone, sometimes they ask me 'What's she saying?' Now my mother says she'll have to learn Spanish!"

By Geoffrey Goff
Freelance journalist in Spain