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Forced out of school, Congolese refugees choose having more babies

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The camp's residents stood and listened to songs and testimonies to remember Congolese Tutsi who were allegedly killed by the Rwandan Interahamwe militias now operating as the FDLR rebels.

Gicumbi, Northern Province: Poised by a fence near the front of an audience of 20,000 Congolese refugees, Richard Niunyengabo and thousands of other students skipped class to hear their countrywoman recount, through tears, the horrible tale that brought her to Rwanda. As RNA reports, thousands of Congolese refugees see no future ahead either in Rwanda or in their war-ravaged country.

Though the entire Gihembe refugee camp in north-eastern Rwanda attended the May 25 commemoration, an annual day of remembrance for Congolese Tutsi, Niunyengabo is one of very few who skipped a secondary five class to attend. The camp is located about 55-kilometers north of the capital Kigali.

That's because after 2008, the camp's secondary school stopped teaching everything after secondary three. Congolese students like Niunyengabo have struggled to continue their education.

“In our country, we may study until we achieve our goals. But here in the camp, we are surviving,” he said.

Niunyengabo, like many Gihembe residents, fled violence in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1997 and hasn't seen home since. He's one of many 21-year-old refugees who have grown up in camp schools thanks to funding from the Jesuit Refugee Service, a Catholic aid agency. In 2008 the agency told residents that it could no longer afford to run its school past ordinary levels (secondary three).

After singing in chorus to honour their perished friends and family members, Congolese refugees file back to the entrance of Hope School to watch the rest of the ceremony. Hope School is still not accredited, but it's the best chance for its 75 students to get an education.

After that, there's no money for further education and little hope of finding jobs in Rwanda.

“It's so difficult. Here in Rwanda, you get a job from your education level,” he said. “But we (Congolese) don't get education.”

There are up to 55,000 Congolese refugees living in Rwanda.

Niunyengabo is luckier than his peers. He found work building houses in his camp and was able to continue his studies at nearby Rebero College.

Few refugees get that opportunity. Sam Nziza, a secondary school teacher in the camp, estimates that over 5,000 of Gihembe camp's residents currently attend the six-year primary school and over 1,100 attend the three-year secondary school. After that, because they can't afford to go to school outside the camp, Congolese students drop out in much higher proportion than their Rwandan neighbours.

Even though 2002 census figures suggest that Congolese refugees make up almost a fifth of the district's population, only one of Niunyengabo's 46 classmates at Rebero College is Congolese.

The ceremony reminds Congolese Tutsi who escaped to Rwanda of the danger that still awaits them in Democratic Republic of the Congo

The fate of other students is depressing to camp organizers. Jobs are scarce. The camp's medical staff complains that many young woman leave school, get pregnant and create large families. The culture in the camp encourages them to procreate quickly in case war reaches the camp. Furthermore, women with larger families get more hand-outs from donors.

“If they have two children, they'll get little: maybe two kilos,” said Chantal Namukobwa, a family planning councilor at the camp. “For those who have ten children, they might get twenty kilos.”

Educators sigh and admit that several other would-be students become street kids or turn to drugs.

Baudouin Ntabareshyo, another refugee approaching 14 years of life in Rwanda, is trying to fill the gap left by the Jesuit Refugee Service. He and like-minded refugees used to attend Rwandan universities around the country, but they returned to their camp to launch the new Hope School secondary school after 2008.

Ntabareshyo now heads the school, which currently teaches secondary four and five classes in Rwanda's history, economics and geography streams.

“We chose these streams because they don't need many laboratories, much money, or complicated logistics,” he said.

Hope School only teaches 75 students, and it still hasn't been approved to issue Rwandan diplomas, which leaves potential graduates in an education limbo. Ntabareshyo says the school will start teaching secondary six classes next year anyway, and he predicts he will gain the acceptance of Rwanda's education system in time for his students to graduate.

This assumes, of course, that security in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo will remain unstable. Camp residents protested furiously last January after the Rwandan government arrested Congolese rebel commander Laurent Nkunda, arguing that Nkunda was their best hope for stabilizing the region and letting them go home. Yesterday they united peacefully to weep for their fourteenth year of exile. While refugees would welcome good news, they don't expect their home to be safe anytime soon.

“Even tomorrow, if I was eating breakfast and they told me I could return home, I'd leave my breakfast and return home,” said Ntabareshyo.

Refugees took a sombre march through their camp.

Going home would present new difficulties. Rwandan schools have started teaching in English while Congolese schools teach in French, and Ntabareshyo admits that students like Nsengiyera, who speak better English, would have difficulty adjusting to the language change.

And even though Nsengiyera has lived more than half his life in Rwanda, he yearns for his home country.

“It's not my purpose to get a job here in Rwanda,” he said. “I'm focusing to return back to my country. There's no place better than your own.”


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