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In Rwanda, helping Congolese refugee children be children again

News and Press Release
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By Raquel Wexler and Cyriaque Ngoboka

UNICEF and partners are making sure that children who have fled violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and crossed into a transit centre in Rwanda find safe spaces to be children.

RUBAVU, Rwanda, 20 March 2013 – Yvette Gateyeneza, 14, spends most of her day helping her mother and older sister prepare food, fetch water and wash the few clothes they were able to carry with them before settling in Nkamira Transit Centre.

“We don’t attend school,” says Yvette. “We wake up every morning, go to get clean and then go to pray. After that, I help my mother with lunch. We don’t have much else to do.”

Safe spaces for children

Since fighting broke out in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, thousands of Congolese people have crossed over into Rwanda to seek refuge at Nkamira Transit Centre, a way-station. Managed by Rwanda's Ministry of Disaster Management and Refugee Affairs and UNHCR, the transit centre is punctuated by makeshift tents and structures that shelter the more than 5,000 people who currently reside there, nearly 90 per cent of whom are women and children.

With family structures broken and schooling interrupted, there is an urgent need to provide for the care and protection of children, and restore a sense of normalcy.

UNICEF has partnered with Vision Jeunesse Nouvelle and Save the Children to provide organized recreational activities for children and youth at the transit centre. Child-friendly activities provide children with learning, play and entertainment activities. Such ‘child-friendly spaces’ are designed to serve as safe and protected spaces for children to be in times of emergency.

“Of the population here in Nkamira, 60 per cent are children,” says UNICEF Rwanda Representative Noala Skinner. “We have a children’s influx. One of our top priorities is setting up child-friendly spaces for these children. Safe spaces where they can be children. Where they can play. Where they can play football, where they can dance, where they can sing. Where they can do all sorts of activities, and have fun.”

“Before we came to the camp, the youth were unoccupied,” says Ladislas Ntesirayo, an animator for Vision Jeunesse Nouvelle. “There was a need to encourage them. With the youth, we now do different activities. We play football, we play volleyball, we have acrobatics, theatre, songs, modern dance, traditional dance and so on. And we try to provide counselling for those who faced problems in the Congo.”

“I was very happy to see the animators come to the transit centre,” says Yvette. “Before they came, we had nothing to do.”

Messages for youth, and beyond

UNICEF has supported child-friendly recreational and psychosocial activities in Nkamira Transit Centre since 2012. Using drama, sports and songs, messages on gender-based violence and HIV prevention have been disseminated to 70 per cent of the refugees in a short period of time. A concert organized by Vision Jeunesse Nouvelle helped to spread messages on good hygiene, child protection and HIV prevention.

Through partnership with Save the Children, UNICEF is supporting early childhood development activities for children aged 0 to 6, a child protection desk to strengthen referral mechanisms for children at risk, and temporary care for unaccompanied and separated children in the transit centre.

UNICEF and its partners are working to ensure that all the children of Nkamira have safe and protected places to play, and have fun.

“I am happy that all children will have the chance to play,” says Yvette.