Acton Institute Powerblog

Wasting Away In Refugee Camps

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A refugee camp, by definition, is meant to be temporary. Yet, in many places in Africa, young people know nothing but life in a refugee camp. And they are wasting away – perhaps not physically, but mentally, emotionally and in terms of feeling useful.

In Tanzania, Ezad Essa explored some of these camp, talking to young people.

Ilunga Malea Shabani, 26, says he does not recall his journey to Tanzania well.

It was some time in 1997 when major fighting broke out in South Kivu province in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

His uncle and aunt grabbed him and fled across Lake Tanganyika into Tanzania.

That was 18 years ago.

He hasn’t heard about the fate of his parents since. The only world he knows is the Nyarugusu refugee camp where he has lived since he was an eight-year-old boy.

“I have never been out of the camp. I have seen things on my phone, like pictures from Cape Town,” he says with a grin …

Shabani says he cuts hair for 90 cents, or does odd jobs around the camp. When asked why he doesn’t leave, he says he wouldn’t know where to go. He is as enterprising as he can be, given his situation and what he knows about the world.

Compare Shabani’s life to that of Forbes 30 Most Promising Young Entrepreneurs of 2015. Trushar Khetia founded Tria Group, an outdoor advertising agency in Kenya, now worth $1.3 million. Mark Essien of Nigeria owns Hotels.ng, Nigeria’s largest hotel booking site. Stephen Sembuya is the 28-year-old Ugandan founder and CEO of Pink Food Industries, a convenience food manufacturer.

What is the difference between these three entrepreneurs and Shabani? Is it intelligence? Drive? Education?

No, it is access. Access to education, to enterprise, to business, to the market. A refugee camp is stagnant. There is no incentive to better one’s self there, only to subsist. Basic needs are taken care of. No one is held up as an example or guide as to how to move on and up. It is the difference between aid and enterprise. Botswana entrepreneur Karanja Gakio told PovertyCure:

There’s certain instances where aid might come in handy. If there’s a catastrophe and people need shelter and food and that sort of thing. But in terms of being able to raise a general level of wealth and to create jobs, create development, I don’t think that aid’s going to do that. The work of entrepreneurs I’ve seen in my own work. Some of the things that I’m really proud of about Africa Online isn’t necessarily so much that they created wealth for investors. But I think what’s really happening for me is to just look and see how many people’s lives have been changed, how many families are supported by this effort, an effort of one or two or three people.”

One can hope that the entrepreneurs of Africa can begin to help those like Shabani escape the stagnation, both economic and psychic, of refugee camps.

Elise Hilton Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.

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