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Congolese exiles kick off the healing process

Robert Hakiza (31) is an energetic man. His step is sprightly, his thin body always moving. If he's not fidgeting behind his desk, he's dashing around the small, bustling office of Young African Refugees for Integral Development in Kampala.

Like hundreds of thousands of others, Hakiza left the Democratic Republic of Congo for Uganda to escape violence. But, being young, ambitious and smart, he didn't want to stay in a state-run refugee camp.

"I come from a city [in the DRC], so there's no way I could go to the settlement, because there I would have to work in agriculture, which I can't do," he says.

In mid-2013, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees estimated that, of the 210574 refugees residing in Uganda, 34488 lived in Kampala. Congolese make up more than half of both of these figures – there are 133 000 Congolese in Uganda, 19377 of whom live in Kampala.

The Ugandan government provides support – such as land for farming, housing, food, healthcare and schooling – to refugees in camps, which are primarily located in the country's sparsely populated rural areas.

But many refugees leave these settlements, finding life there restricted, depressing and difficult, or for fear of violence from rebel factions that sometimes spill into the camps.

Others bypass camps entirely. Many come from cities, and have university degrees or a background in business, and go to the country's capital to try their luck in the urban metropolis.

They're part of a familiar trend of urbanisation: the city of Kampala estimates that up to 70% of all Kampalans are rural-to-urban migrants.

According to the Justice and Peace Centre, which is located in Kampala, 60% of the city's residents live in slums.

The influx of thousands of foreigners to an already stressed environment can cause tensions between Ugandans and refugees.

This is made worse by the Ugandan government's policy to not give support to those living outside of designated areas.

Although refugees are legally able to access the same services as Ugandans, they are not given any material support as they are in refugee camps. But support is needed.

Hope Kiyai, from the Ugandan office of the high commissioner for refugees, says that the Congolese struggle to learn English, and the language barrier impedes their access to services.

Many of the refugees have post-traumatic stress disorder. Most have experienced violence and "a very, very large number" are survivors of sexual assault, says Kiyai.

There are no formal numbers, but Kiyai estimates that 98% of Congolese women have been sexually assaulted.

InterAid, the local partner for the high commissioner for refugees in Kampala, notes that Congolese are sometimes refused medical care by Ugandan hospitals and clinics, or made to pay higher fees than Ugandans.

"The Congolese have a language problem; they can't explain their problem to the doctor," says Hakiza.

"Refugees also aren't included in the budgeting of the catchment area, so there's not enough medicine for everyone, and Ugandans are prioritised."

Because they are not considered in Kampala's budget, public services aren't equipped to deal with the city's large refugee population, leaving them to rely on places of worship and nongovernmental institutions.

But these institutions are cash-strapped and few and far between, leaving thousands of refugees – especially those who are undocumented – vulnerable.

Without significant external support, refugees often turn to their own for help.

Fresh to Uganda in 2008, Hakiza formed the organisation with three other Congolese refugees and a Ugandan to help new migrants to find their footing.

They witnessed fellow refugees struggling to make ends meet, with some turning to sex work and crime, and many facing depression and social isolation.

Hakiza and his co-founders used sport to bring people together, hosting evening football games in a local field that drew hundreds of refugees.

"We started discussing problems that affected us," he says.

Five years later, the young refugees boast of Swahili and English classes, a formal sports programme, higher-level education through online courses, a safe place to relax and use the internet at their office, and craft-making courses for women who, Hakiza says, are the main breadwinners in the community.

Chatting to young Congolese refugees on a sunny afternoon offers insight into why they have made Kampala their home and the challenges they face.

Tantine Sibomana (22), who comes from Goma in the eastern part of the DRC, says that she's struggling to support her two-year-old daughter, her father and her four siblings. She is the only breadwinner.

"The life for a foreigner is so hard here," she says.

"It's expensive. When they see you are a foreigner, they charge you 350 000 Ugandan shillings [about R1 400] per month, not 200 000 shillings like for Ugandans. You have to learn English. To get a job is not easy."

Still, she says she can't go home, and she prefers living in Kampala than in a refugee camp.

"At least here you can work and buy some food. But there you just sit and wait, one cup of rice for this, one cup of rice for that. There's no life in camp. It's just disease."

A 27-year-old Congolese man says he had to leave the DRC after he joined a rebel group to fight Banro, the Toronto Stock Exchange-listed mining company that was operating in his hometown.

He was sentenced to life in prison, and escaped to Rwanda, but didn't want to stay because "I know the [Rwandan] government supports the government in the Congo. They can arrest you and send you back."

He spoke no English when he came to Kampala, but took courses through the young refugees organisation and is involved with their sports programme, which he credits with bridging the wide gaps between different refugees from across the region.

"Rwandans speak bad about Congolese, Congolese speak bad about the Rwandans, all because of the war," he says.

"But with sport we have succeeded in pulling the youth together. The youth, who are jobless and don't go to school, have started to exchange ideas and think ahead."

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Mara Kardas-Nelson
Mara Kardas-Nelson is a journalist with the Mail & Guardian's Centre for Health Journalism, where she focuses on access to medicine, health policy, financing, and planning. She has been contributing to the Mail & Guardian since 2009, writing on a wide variety of topics ranging from the environment to development to local culture. In 2010 she shared a Mondi Shanduka Newspaper award with photographer Sam Reinders for their work on acid mine drainage in Gauteng and Mpumalanga. Her work has appeared in publications across Africa, North America, and Europe.

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