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Context: The largest refugee camp in Malawi is Dzaleka, located in Dowa District. Originally a political prison meant for only 6,000 inhabitants, it became a UNHCR refugee camp for 34,000 people following an increase in refugees in 1994. The majority of refugees come from D.R. Congo, but also include Burundi, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Somalia. BYU Interns visit the camp once a week in the summers to meet with members of the church.
It is a few miles’ radius of the same scene; red clay dirt roads riddled with pot holes, lined by one-bedroom huts packed so tightly that you cannot tell where one ends and the other begins. Constant chatter fills the air as men, women, and children alike interact and wander through the streets. The occasional dog scurries past, their incessant barking carrying down the road. Going against fate, a few cloth-covered shacks advertising fresh chapatti and cheap vegetables have managed to pop up on street corners. Zero income flow or work opportunity make any economic aspirations within the camp next to impossible.
On our first visit to the camp, members of the Church invited us into their various homes where we sang hymns, shared stories, and bore testimony. They shared their vulnerabilities and fears. And then we said goodbye. And I left the Dzaleka camp deeply unsettled. At first, I was confused as to why I felt this way. Poverty was not new to me. My education inside and outside of the classroom had taught me that the physical conditions of poverty in the camp are comparable to how the majority of humanity lives. An injustice within itself, but a truth I had already been forced to bear heavy witness of.
So, the state of the camp was not the cause of my new and deep feelings of unsettlement. Instead, it lay in the fact that these asylum seekers could not legally leave the confines of the camp. They explained to us that though they were free of any crime beyond living in the wrong place at the wrong time, their lives had become equated to that of prisoners. The majority of the inhabitants were on track to continue the rest of their days within this stagnate excuse for living.
Such a distant and hopeless picture can make refugees in Dzaleka seem very foreign and difficult to relate to. Especially when there has been close to no news media coverage of the human right violations that have caught the Congo in a bloody civil war for decades. This disconnect is perpetuated by other natural human tendencies. For example, it has been shown that human brain cannot grasp large numbers. Anything beyond 100 becomes difficult for us to fully comprehend. Feeling empathy for the faceless 4.5 million displaced people from the DRC then becomes a formidable challenge.
But I can try to make it easier for you. The first and clearest parallel for me was the fact that these refugees have testimonies of Jesus Christ just like me. The light in their eyes and quiet conviction in their voices had the same look and sound as my bishop when he spoke over the pulpit about his love for Christ. Beyond this, even the hymnbooks have the same off-green coloring with the old tabernacle silhouette printed on the front. During the prayer, the mothers quietly rock and shush their children in the same way that parents patiently do when the deacons are passing the sacrament. Little aspects of the church that have been present in my life since primary were clearly replicated in Dzaleka.
I can promise you that this planet is small. The other side of the world is actually just a few movies and airplane naps away. And once you arrive, you realize the people here are the same as the ones that you left in the U.S. airport. We have different languages running in our minds, but laughter and gratitude come across in smiles and eyes more easily than words anyway. And understanding a boy named Boyson, balancing his ball tied up with plastic bags, who proudly hits his chest and pronounces himself as “Ronaldo” doesn’t require you to have a knowledge of Chichewa.
So, while a history of oppressive colonization may have delayed their ability to prosper as a country, simple accidents of history are not enough to make us different. My happenstance place of birth does not mean I am more innately intelligent or capable than the 20-year old girl walking along the street laden with water jugs.
Realizing this sameness always feels like coming home. It is incredibly intuitive. We all come from the same loving Father in Heaven. Of course, the essence and core of who each of us are is really the same. But recognizing this unity of humanity is a two-edged sword. You feel more connected and at home in this world but you can also no longer excuse the situation of Congolese refugees in an overcrowded Malawian camp.
This realization hurts. It makes it easier for me to picture the refugee mother named Ester as my own mom. Faced with xenophobic persecution in a refugee camp in South Africa, Ester’s husband was beat up. Unable to get proper medical care, he died. And now after getting moved to the camp in Malawi, her youngest son had become sick. The look in her eyes, fear and resignation and apprehension all in one, was identical to the one in my own mom’s eyes standing in the hospital after my brother had his first seizure.
The one thing separating them was hope. A hope that my mother had but Ester did not, because one had access to medical care while the other had no source of income, no ability to go to a hospital, and no way to solve it. Taking away a mother’s ability to properly care for a child has a debilitating effect that was evident in the way that Ester sank in the chair, with a heaviness beyond her years.
I have been taught my whole life that challenges are necessary to humble us and cause us to rely more on Christ. Nobody emulates this more than these members. In arguably the most hopeless situation a human can face, they stood in front of me and said “I can feel God’s love. God has blessed us by helping us find other members in this camp, to not feel as alone.”
Their devotion takes on even more significance when one realizes that they have not stepped foot into a dedicated church building in years. Not allowed to leave the camp, they have no access to church meetings. No proper, organized service to attend. One young woman celebrated her birthday while we visited her. She met our cringe-worthy ballad of happy birthday with a quiet smile of resignation, politely thanking us. Afterward, when I congratulated her again on turning 18, the one thing that she sadly said to me was “I should be going to Relief Society now.” The fact that attending Relief Society is a far-fetched dream for this daughter of God? Unfathomable.
Their faith again becomes even more admirable when you take into account the fact that they have not taken the sacrament in years. In five years, seven years, even ten years for some. Going more than two weeks without the sacrament has me feeling antsy. I cannot imagine retaining such a solid testimony of the Lord without access to this ordinance. Yet it is what they do.
These members do what they can. They meet on Mondays, week after week, year after year, for FHE. Together, they sing hymns in French and praise God for their lives. They choose faith over frustration. They choose gratitude over exasperation. Their ability to persevere is godly within itself.
This all begs the question, “to what end?” And that question has no real answer. The refugees have no guarantee of anything ever changing. Being resettled is not an expectation, but a miracle, available to only a select few. So, they continue in this stagnation, relying on nothing but each other and Christ.
The refugees come from a world of violence and tragedy. And while they have a concrete and clear appreciation for the safety that they have in the camps, that does not negate the fact that they are human beings. People who come from privileged lives have the misconception that poverty leaves people so desperate, that something as simple as a crust of bread or a sip of water will satiate them. However, this has been disproven. Researchers have determined that when people in poverty increase their income, they begin to buy more delectable foods instead of substantive or nutritious foods. This actually makes perfect sense. We all have the same cravings and desires.
Living with less does not negate the human need to have dreams. The same goes for these refugees. They require more than a caged life.
Leaving the refugee camp, we drove back into Kasungu, greeted by fruit sellers along the street and a continued expanse of dirt roads. To an untrained eye, it may look simply like an extension of the impoverished refugee camp. But looking around, I realized that I viewed all of these people as lucky. Sure, more than half of Malawians live on less than $1 a day and live in abject poverty, but they can travel beyond their front yard. Their simple ability to have freedom of movement now seemed to be a source of prosperity. And where does that leave me on this scale of luck? Blessed beyond comprehension would still be a gross understatement.
I am left wondering where we go from here. Though I single-handedly am inspired to topple the regimes in the DRC, it seems logistically difficult. Instead, I can begin with sharing. By telling my wards about their brothers and sisters in Malawi who meet religiously every Monday in a small room because it is all they can do; who emulate the same level of faith I thought was only found in ancient scripture. And I can hope that our joint support, effort, endeavors, and prayers can result in some sort of respite.
But above all, I can fully embrace the knowledge that Christ is the Great Mediator, and while there are some things we will never be able to reconcile in this life, we can hold on to our knowledge of God’s unfathomable capabilities and His promise that all will eventually be made right.