Life in a Refugee Camp

WHAT comes to your mind when you hear the expression “refugee camp”? Have you ever visited one? What does one even look like?

At the time of writing, 13 different refugee camps had been established in the western part of Tanzania. Displaced by civil wars, about 500,000 refugees from other African lands were being helped by the Tanzanian government in cooperation with the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR). What is life like in a camp?

Arriving at the Camp

A teenage girl named Kandida explains what happened when she and her family arrived a few years ago: “They gave us a ration card with an ID number, and our family was assigned to the Nyarugusu refugee camp. There we received a plot number and a street number. We were shown where to cut trees and collect grass to use in building our own small house. We made mud bricks. The UNHCR gave us a plastic sheet that we put on the roof. It was hard work, but we were happy when our simple home was ready.”

The ration card is used every other Wednesday. “Yes, we line up at the canteen to collect basic food items that are distributed by the UNHCR,” continues Kandida.

What is the daily menu like for one person?

“We each receive about 3 cups of maize (corn) flour, one cup of peas, 20 grams of soya, 2 tablespoons of cooking oil, and 10 grams of salt. Sometimes we also receive a bar of soap, which is to last a whole month.”

What about clean water? Is it available? A young woman named Riziki says: “Yes, water is pumped from nearby rivers through pipelines to huge reservoirs. The water is treated with chlorine before being pumped to the many water stands in each camp. We still try to boil the water before we drink it to avoid  becoming ill. We are often busy from morning to evening collecting water and washing our clothes at these water stands. We can only have one and a half buckets of water a day.”

If you were to drive through one of the camps, you might notice preschools, primary schools, and secondary schools. There might even be some adult education in the camp. A police post and a government office just outside the camp ensure that the camp is secure and safe. You might see a big market with many small shops where refugees can find vegetables, fruit, fish, chicken, and other basic foods. Some of the local population come to the market to do business. But where do the refugees get money to buy anything? Some cultivate a small vegetable garden and sell the produce at the market. Others might sell part of the flour or the peas they receive, using that as a way to get some meat or fruit. Yes, the camp might look more like a big village than a camp. It is common to see some at the market laughing and having a good time, just as they would have done in their homeland.

If you stop at the hospital, one of the doctors might tell you that there are a few clinics in the camp where general cases are treated; emergencies and severe cases are referred to the hospital. Understandably, the maternity department and the delivery room at the hospital are important, considering that in  a camp of 48,000 refugees, there could be about 250 births a month.

Spiritually Well Fed

Around the globe, Jehovah’s Witnesses might wonder about their spiritual brothers who reside in the camps in Tanzania. All in all, there are about 1,200 of them, organized into 14 congregations and 3 groups. How are they doing?

Among the first things these devoted Christians did when they came to the camps was to ask for a plot on which to build a Kingdom Hall. This would enable the refugee population to know where to find the Witnesses and where to attend their weekly meetings. In the Lugufu camp, there are 7 congregations, with a total of 659 active Christians. At their Sunday meetings, the combined attendance of these 7 congregations usually totals about 1,700.

Witnesses in all camps also benefit from larger Christian assemblies and conventions. When the first district convention was held in the Lugufu camp, 2,363 attended. The Witnesses had constructed a baptismal pool just outside the convention site. The pool was a hole dug in the ground, with plastic lining it so as to hold the water. By bicycle, the brothers transported water from a river a little over a mile [two kilometers] away. At five gallons [20 L] each trip, that meant many trips. The baptismal candidates, dressed in modest clothes, lined up for the baptism. In all, 56 were baptized by total immersion. One full-time minister interviewed at the convention explained that he conducted Bible studies with 40 different individuals. Four of his students were baptized at that convention.

The branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses has arranged for regular visits by traveling overseers. One of them says: “Our brothers are zealous in the ministry. They have a large field to preach in, and in one congregation each Witness spends about 34 hours a  month in the ministry. Many conduct five or more Bible studies with interested ones. One pioneer [full-time minister] said that she couldn’t have a better territory anywhere. People in the camps appreciate our publications very much.”

How does Bible literature reach the camps? The branch sends it by train to Kigoma, a town on the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika. There brothers receive the publications and arrange to transport these to the congregations. Sometimes they rent a pick-up truck and deliver the literature themselves to all the camps. This takes about three or four days over very rough roads.

Material Assistance

Jehovah’s Witnesses in France, Belgium, and Switzerland have been particularly helpful in providing assistance to refugees in these camps. Some have visited the camps in Tanzania, with the approval of the Ministry of Home Affairs and UNHCR. The Witnesses in Europe have collected tons of soy milk, clothes, shoes, schoolbooks, and soap. These items have been donated for distribution to all refugees, in line with the Bible principle: “As long as we have time favorable for it, let us work what is good toward all, but especially toward those related to us in the faith.”​—Galatians 6:10.

These humanitarian efforts have produced very good results, with many refugees being assisted. The Refugee Community Committee in one of the camps expressed appreciation in these words: “In behalf of our whole community, we have the honor to address you to thank you for your humanitarian gesture that your organization has rendered three times . . . The clothes have served 12,654 needy men, women, and children, as well as newborn babies . . . The refugee population in Muyovozi refugee camp presently has 37,000 inhabitants. Altogether, 12,654 people were helped, or 34.2 percent of the population.”

In another camp, 12,382 refugees were each given three articles of clothing, and another camp received thousands of schoolbooks to be used in secondary and primary schools and in day-care centers. The logistics officer of the UNHCR in one of the regions commented: “We are very grateful for the donation received [meeting] the great needs of the population in the refugee camps. The most recent consignment received was that of 5 containers of books, which our community services have distributed amongst the refugee population. . . . Thank you very much.”

Even local newspapers have commented on the aid rendered. A headline in the Sunday News of May 20, 2001, said: “Clothes for Refugees in Tanzania Coming.” Its edition of February 10, 2002, commented: “The refugee community appreciates the donation because some of the children, who had dropped out of school due to lack of clothes, are now attending classes regularly.”

Cramped but Not Without a Way Out

For most of the refugees, it takes about a year to adapt to the new way of life in the camp. They live simple lives. Jehovah’s Witnesses in these camps are using much of their time to share with their refugee neighbors the comforting good news from God’s Word, the Bible. They tell about a new world, where all “will have to beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning shears. They will not lift up sword, nation against nation, neither will they learn war anymore.” Then all “will actually sit, each one under his vine and under his fig tree, and there will be no one making them tremble; for the very mouth of Jehovah of armies has spoken it.” Clearly, with God’s blessing this will be a world without refugee camps.​—Micah 4:3, 4; Psalm 46:9.

[Picture on page 8]

Houses in Nduta camp

[Pictures on page 10]

Lukole Kingdom Hall (right) Baptism in Lugufu (below)

[Picture on page 10]

District convention in Lugufu camp