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Hosts offer vital refuge to families fleeing DRC violence

"When I met these children, they were very sad and traumatised. They needed a place to call home more than anything else. I could not leave them on their own."

Justine Mbilizi, 39, from the host community in Kitutu, South Kivu, pours palm wine into recycled glass bottles. She brewed it to sell to neighbours. Justine lives with her mother, husband and five children and has taken in four displaced children whose mother died during childbirth. Their father is desperately searching for work.

Hosts offer vital refuge to families fleeing DRC violence

Solidarity shown by local Congolese communities has been critical in the response to mass forced displacement, but funding cuts threaten UNHCR's ability to offer support.
13 January 2021
Justine Mbilizi pours palm wine into recycled glass bottles in Kitutu, South Kivu, the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The money that Justine Mbilizi makes from selling the palm wine she brews with her mother is just enough to buy food for her own large family and the four other children she has welcomed into her home.

The children and their parents fled attacks by armed groups on their village in the Minembwe Highlands, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s South Kivu province.

“The journey was very traumatizing for them,” says Justine, 40, who lives with her mother, five children and husband, in addition to the four children and their father.

She explains that the children’s mother died from complications during childbirth while they were on the run. Their father is out all week in search of farming work.

In Eastern DRC, increased violence has forced up to a million women, men and children to flee their homes in the past year alone, seeking safety with other local Congolese families like Justine’s.

Worldwide there are around 80 million people uprooted by conflict and persecution, of whom 45.7 million were people who had fled to other areas of their own countries.

In total, some 5.2 million people in DRC are currently uprooted within the country’s borders due to violence and insecurity, making it the world’s third-highest source of forced internal displacement after Colombia and Syria.

With armed groups continuously attacking civilians and looting villages, many have no choice but to flee with little more than the clothes they are wearing. Women and girls are often exposed to sexual violence and the journey to safer locations can take several days, forcing families to sleep in the open.

The hospitality shown by local communities whose own resources are often limited is providing a vital lifeline, prompting UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, to channel its support to both those forced to flee as well as the families hosting them. But severe funding shortages threaten to undermine these efforts, leaving vulnerable families exposed to dire living conditions.

“When I met this family, they were very sad and traumatized. They needed a place to call home more than anything else,” says Justine. “I could not leave them on their own. My husband agreed we would take care of them, so they are now part of our family.”

“I can’t see my people suffering when I have space in my home.”

“Life is not easy for these children,” she adds. “Not only did they have to flee violence, but they also lost their mother under very dramatic circumstances. They don’t eat well, and they find it difficult to adapt to the new climate, which is warmer here.”

Their father struggles to make ends meet, earning very little for long days spent working in the fields.

In a nearby village called Kitoko, Mangasa and her husband are also sheltering an elderly couple and their two grandchildren. Asha, 80, has difficulty walking so reaching safety was a huge challenge.

“I had to walk for five days to reach the village. The journey was not easy as we had to climb down from the mountains to reach Kitoko. It took all my strength and perseverance, but I am very grateful to live with Mangasa’s family,” says Asha.

In neighbouring North Kivu, Zeferina, 56, has opened up her house to three forcibly displaced families. Her house is spacious and modern, compared to many of the neighbouring houses made out of mud.

“I can’t see my people suffering when I have space in my home,” she says.

Already taking care of eight children, she is hosting as many as ten other children and their mothers.

“They fled because of violence and when they arrived here, they were exhausted and scared. I can’t let them suffer,” adds the caring host.

Under UNHCR’s shelter support programme, as well as providing materials to allow displaced famalies to construct their own dwellings, the agency also helps host families build extensions to their own homes, easing overcrowding and improving living conditions in hosting areas.

In Oicha, in eastern DRC’s Beni region, Evan is finalizing his own shelter, thanks to UNHCR’s support. Kahumba and her family of eight, who are living in a modest mud brick house, hosted him, his wife and four children for several months. As their house was very small, Evan’s family would sleep on the living room floor.

“We are very thankful we could stay with our hosts when we had nowhere to go.”

“We are very thankful we could stay with our hosts when we had nowhere to go,” says the 39-year-old. “Now we have our own space which allows us to live in dignity.”

“They had nowhere to live, while I had a house available to welcome them. We faced difficulties to provide food for everyone, and the house was always very cramped. It's a really good thing they have their own shelter now,” says Kahumba, who is pleased to have more space in her house once again.

Ibrahima Diané, the head of UNHCR’s field office in Beni, emphasizes the importance of host community support.

“We would never be able to assist the hundreds of thousands of displaced without the crucial role that host families play,” he explains. “To ensure that they can continue to do so, we need to support the whole community.”

In addtion to shelter, UNHCR also provides assistance to communities affected by forced displacement by rehabilitating classrooms, installing water pumps to provide clean water and through projects that create work for the community.

“Through this community-based approach, we are boosting the resilience of the broader community who are the first responders to recurrent forced displacement towards their villages and homes, and helping reduce possible tensions,” adds Diané.

October 2020 saw the total number of people who have fled their homes within DRC reach nearly 5.2 million, with nearly 3 million of them in North and South Kivu provinces alone. Most are hosted in households that are already crowded, and where social distancing is impossible.

This year, some 35,000 families comprised of 175,000 individuals in North and South Kivu have received shelter support from UNHCR. This includes emergency and communal shelters, transitional houses and rental subsidies. So far, 15,000 families have completed their shelters while 20,000 more are currently under construction.

But a severe lack of funding threatens to reduce UNHCR’s ability to assist those in need next year.

The shelter budget for North and South Kivu will shrink by at least 85 per cent in 2021, leaving thousands of families without a roof over their heads. The community-based protection budget will also fall by 57 per cent, hampering UNHCR’s ability to respond to local communities’ needs and promote peaceful coexistence and women’s empowerment.

More funding is urgently needed to enable UNHCR to continue contributing to durable solutions for those forced to flee in Eastern DRC during 2021, and supporting the solidarity shown to them by local Congolese communities.