Close sites icon close
Search form

Search for the country site.

Country profile

Country website

Congolese teenager finds life tough in Kenya, but hangs on to his dreams


Congolese teenager finds life tough in Kenya, but hangs on to his dreams

John fled his home in eastern Congo to escape conflict. The teenager has applied for asylum in Kenya and found a place to live, but life is hard in the city.
15 April 2010
Congolese civilians on the road after attacks on their homes in the east of the country. Violence continues to displace people and some, such as John, flee overseas.

NAIROBI, Kenya, April 15 (UNHCR) - Fifteen-year-old Congolese refugee John* does not ask for much. The teenager says that all he wants is a mattress and the chance to learn English, though he clearly thinks a lot about his missing siblings and his parents, who were slain last year in volatile North Kivu province.

There are a lot of challenges for this unaccompanied minor, but at least he has a roof over his head thanks to a fortuitous meeting with a sympathetic fellow refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Jeanette comes from the same tribe and lives with her family of seven in Nairobi's Soweto slum.

With UNHCR's help, John has also applied for asylum in Kenya. He is one of around 50,000 registered refugees and asylum-seekers in Nairobi, including 951 unaccompanied minors, who have escaped from conflict in North Kivu. Many more are believed not to have registered with the authorities.

"Life in Kenya is hard. There is no job, no school and no friends for me here," sighed John, who is facing the kinds of problems that millions of other refugees live with in urban environments. More than half of the 10.5 million refugees of concern to UNHCR live in towns and cities, and more and more of them are women, children and older people with special needs.

The UN refugee agency has responded to this changing pattern by adopting a new policy that emphasizes the obligation of UNHCR and host states to protect the urban refugees and respect their status. Meanwhile, a recently released report by the International Rescue Committee and the Overseas Development Institute, a British think tank, looks specifically at the challenges faced by UNHCR and its partners in helping urban refugees in Nairobi.

In North Kivu, John's family made a living as cattle herders, but, as he explained, "We had to move around a lot because of the war, and I only had the chance to go to school for one year." In June last year, armed assailants brought the conflict to his village near the town of Betembo and John had to flee for his life. "I have two younger sisters and two brothers, but I don't know if any of them are alive," he said, adding: "All I know for sure is that my mother and father are dead."

Left on his own, the boy had to grow up very quickly. Fearing it was too dangerous for John to remain hidden in North Kivu, another cattle herder who knew his family helped John to cross the Ugandan border. From there, he was taken to Nairobi in the back of a lorry.

In large cities such as Nairobi, some refugees have trouble finding their way to UNHCR for the support they need. But John was lucky, a few days after reaching the Kenyan capital he met Jeanette in a downtown market. "When I heard her speaking my language, I approached her," John recalled. She offered to let him stay in the spartan, one-room home she shared with her family of seven.

John knows that he has been fortunate, but he also realizes that things could change. "I don't know how long I can stay here," he said, adding: "There is very little space and not enough money to feed us all."

The room, where eight people live, eat and sleep, is roughly 10 square metres. It has a light bulb hanging from the ceiling, but this does not work because the electricity bill has not been paid. There is also a single mattress behind a curtain, a small bench and a gas-fuelled camping cooker in a corner. "I spend most days doing as much I can to help Jeanette, fetching water and taking care of the small children," John explained.

Although, he gets depressed if he thinks about his situation, John does not want to stay in a camp, where he could benefit from comprehensive assistance, including access to education, health care and food. "I'm afraid the people who killed my parents will be hiding in the camps, waiting to kill me too. At least I feel safer here in Nairobi; there aren't so many Congolese here," he said. "As long as I can stay here, life is okay."

But John, and others like him, do need help and UNHCR's new policy tries to address this. It is more challenging for the agency and its partners to provide services and monitor the needs of refugees in cities compared to those living in camps.

Meanwhile, John still has his wish list. "A mattress to sleep on! And I want to study English. Get a small car, maybe, and become a driver. That's my dream."

He has no wish to go back to North Kivu, where the violence has caused more than 1 million people to flee their homes in recent years, with most seeking shelter in other parts of the province, including sites run by UNHCR.

* Name changed for protection reasons.

By Dina Skatvedt Rygg in Nairobi, Kenya