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Vigilant UNHCR staff reunite long-separated mother and daughters in Tanzania


Vigilant UNHCR staff reunite long-separated mother and daughters in Tanzania

A mother is reunited with the daughters she was forced to abandon in a refugee camp in Tanzania in order to avoid being forced to marry her late husband's relative.
2 October 2014
Sifa with her daughters, Riziki and Yamlele, and her grandson in Nyarugusu camp, Tanzania.

NYARUGUSU, Tanzania, October 2 (UNHCR) - Eleven years ago, newly widowed Congolese refugee Sifa Risasi put her two young daughters in the care of a neighbour and ran away from a camp in Tanzania after hearing that her in-laws wanted to marry her off to her husband's brother.

Earlier this year, thanks to eagle-eyed UNHCR staff conducting a refugee verification exercise in Tanzania's Nyarugusu camp, she was finally reunited with her girls in an emotionally-charged and sensitive meeting organized by UNHCR and the International Rescue Committee, unaware that they had been living in the same camp for five years.

"My prayers to God over the years were being answered," Sifa said of the reunion, while poignantly adding: "I was very happy, but I also felt guilty for leaving my children when they needed me most." Both Riziki, aged 19, and 15-year-old Yamlele admitted having mixed feelings about the reunion, but were ultimately happy to be a family again.

Their story had begun in the 1990s in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) during the bitter civil war. Sifa, now aged 44, had first sought refuge in Tanzania in 1997 with her husband, Kalibatu, and Riziki, then aged two. The second child, Yamlele, was born two years later in the Lugufu Refugee Camp.

In 1999, Kalibatu returned to the DRC and died there. Sifa was grappling with the challenges of bringing up two children on her own, when she learned that her late husband's family considered her their property. That's when she panicked, fleeing back to Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2003.

A year on and she returned to Tanzania as war flared up again in eastern DRC. Sifa was sent to Nyarugusu, but when she tried to trace her children she discovered that the neighbour she had left them with had repatriated. No-one knew the whereabouts of her daughters - ironically, they had been living in the same camp for several years.

Mother and daughters might never have known how close they were but for the refugee verification operation conducted in the camp of 70,000 people and the alert UNHCR staff who were gathering biometric and other information from the camp residents for the agency's ProGres database.

The staff noted similarities and links in the information given by Sifa and by her two daughters and they began to suspect that there might be a family connection. Community services staff from UNHCR and the International Rescue Committee discreetly gathered more information and conducted more interviews.

"It was a delicate matter," said UNHCR's Irene Babu, who helped organize the reunion. "We were operating on a hunch. We had to proceed carefully in order not to expose either party, and most importantly we had to avoid opening old wounds." Once the information was corroborated, the parties were informed and they agreed to meet.

Babu said staff were touched by the story. "Because of ProGres, we were able to locate Sifa when we guessed they might have family ties, conduct due diligence and reunite them," she added. Modern technology, combined with photography and fingerprinting, helped simplify what could have been a complex and protracted process.

The three females, meantime, are slowly getting to know each other again. "I am happy to see mama again and at the same time angry that she didn't make any effort to look for us after leaving us with a stranger," Riziki admitted, before adding: "At first, it was difficult to forgive her, but now we have accepted her again."

Yamlele, said she had no immediate sense of emotional attachment. She was raised by her sister and the friendly neighbour. "It is difficult when you have been without a mother for 11 years. We are lucky to come across our mother alive."

Sifa takes it in her stride. "I want us to re-establish that bond as mother and children," she said. "Even more exciting, I am now a grandmother. I thank God for giving me a second chance to be a good mother again," she said, referring to Riziki's year-old son.

The Population Verification Exercise began in November 2013 and officially ended in August 2014 after capturing data of individuals residing in the camp to better help the government of Tanzania and UNHCR provide them with protection and assistance.

By Tom Winston Monboe in Nyarugusu, Tanzania