By Niki Clark, American Red Cross
Elocho Mnyomelwa, 35, understands the life of a refugee. He has been one for nearly 20 years, arriving in Tanzania from the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1997. Since then, he has lived in the Nyarugusu camp, some 160 kilometres from the border with Burundi.
In April 2015, pre-electoral violence in Burundi led to an increasing number of refugees entering the camp in Tanzania, putting overwhelming pressure on already limited resources. As a nursing assistant with the Tanzania Red Cross Society, Elocho now assists in the medical screening of thousands of refugees who were selected to be relocated to the newly reopened Mtendeli camp, three hours to the north.
“Life is not easy here,” Elocho says. “It’s not how I used to live. I lived a good life, free to move as I pleased, with good health and a good place to stay.”
Then civil war happened. His uncle, who had just finished his degree and would have been the family breadwinner, was killed. All these years later, the memory still upsets him. Elocho cries as he tells his story. “Life got very scary.”
He fled to Tanzania with his family. He got married here, and his seven children were born here, and while life is still hard, he knows he has it better than many new arrivals. He has managed to establish a life for himself. He works at the hospital run by the Red Cross, and his children attend school in the camps.
“When I meet a new refugee, I try to help orient them,” he says. “I walk them to the facilities and help get them accustomed to camp life.”
Built with a capacity of 50,000, the Nyarugusu camp today hosts nearly 150,000 refugees, 84,000 of whom are from Burundi. Burundian refugees are not new to Tanzania. Unstable conditions in the past have caused many to flee several times. But most returned to their home country in 2010, and camps such as Mtendeli were closed.
With the new influx – and unable to meet the needs of the current population – Mtendeli camp and its adjoining hospital were renovated and reopened in January 2016. UNHCR had been moving 1,500 refugees currently living in Nyarugusu to the new camp each week, but has had to put further transfers on hold until additional boreholes are built at Mtendeli. Those living in mass shelters, tents housing up to 200 individuals, are identified as priorities.
Before transferring, a medical screening determines if refugees are fit to travel. Elocho, as a member of the Tanzania Red Cross Society, helps in this process. As the lead provider of medical services in both Nyarugusu and Mtendeli camps, the National Society assists UNHCR by conducting physical examinations, vaccinations, and referring those with more intensive issues to the camp hospital, also run by the Red Cross.
Today, Elocho guides families into the tent where children aged five and under will receive vaccinations. Their hope is that when they do make it to Mtendeli, their life will be just a bit more stable.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has launched an Emergency Appeal of 5,245,197 Swiss francs to support the Tanzania Red Cross Society as it responds to this unfolding crisis. The Appeal aims to assist 250,000 refugees in the Nyarugusu and Mtendeli camps through the provision of basic health care, water, sanitation and hygiene promotion, shelter, disaster preparedness and risk reduction and capacity building. The Appeal is currently 48 per cent funded.