What refugees living in cities need

Nine years ago, Robert Hakiza fled an African war zone. Now, he lives in Kampala, advocating on behalf of a growing number of refugees living in Uganda's capital. (Christopher Swope)

When Robert Hakiza fled an African war zone, he did what a majority of refugees do these days: He went to a city.

Hakiza left the Democratic Republic of the Congo nine years ago. He went to neighbouring Uganda, where he settled in the capital city of Kampala. At the time, there were about 40,000 refugees, mostly Congolese, living in Kampala. Today, there’s more than 100,000 refugees in a city of 1.5 million.

While millions of refugees around the world today are living in crowded camps, Hakiza’s urban experience is actually more common. More than half the world’s refugees now live in urban areas, a fact that is challenging humanitarian agencies, civil society and government at all levels to reconsider their responses. Uganda, which received more refugees than any other country in 2016, is considered by many an international model for adjusting to these trends.

Hakiza is part of the change. In Kampala, he co-founded an NGO called YARID, Young African Refugees for Integral Development. The volunteer-driven group provides services for Kampala’s urban refugees to help them establish livelihoods in their new city. It’s one of a number of agencies that have sprung up to handle the urban realities of today’s refugee crisis.

I caught up with Hakiza recently in Bonn, Germany, where he presented at a Resilient Cities conference hosted by ICLEI - Local Governments for Sustainability. He told me his story of settling in Kampala, starting up YARID, and what is and isn’t working in the response to the urban refugees situation there. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Christopher Swope: Please tell your story — how did you get to Kampala?

Robert Hakiza: My family and I fled Congo in 2008 because of the ongoing conflict. I come from a city that is called Goma. That’s the capital city of North Kivu. I was 23 or 24 then and fresh from university, where I studied agriculture. When I completed, I joined my family, hoping that was the beginning of starting my life. But all the dreams I had got interrupted and stopped by the war and conflicts in my country and my city, especially where we were staying. So we had to leave.

North Kivu shares a border with Uganda. We moved up to the border and crossed at Bunagana. As we were trying to see what we were going to do and where we were going to go, we were advised to go to Kampala, because we heard that there is many refugees there.

Q: Did you know people in Kampala?

A: I didn’t. It is only when we reached that we learned that my dad knows a person in Kampala — he also was a refugee. I can’t say we didn’t know anyone, because whenever you find someone with whom you talk the same language and come from the same place, you feel a little bit more comfortable. That is actually what helped us to integrate quickly, for it was already a very big Congolese community in Kampala.

[See: Humanitarian response gets an urban overhaul]

We had to adapt ourselves in that new environment. As refugees, initially we didn’t know that this was something that’s going to take long, you know? You think that this is something that’s going to take a few weeks or a few months, then you will go back home. Unfortunately, that was not the case. One year passed and then two years, and today it’s almost nine years that I’ve been in Kampala.

Q: A majority of the world’s refugees live in cities, not in camps. What’s the calculation in terms of whether to go to a camp or city?

A: Urban refugees in Uganda don’t receive any direct support from UNHCR or the government and other international organizations in terms of basic needs. When you come and you’re new, you are advised to go the refugee settlements. In Uganda, we call them settlements because they are open. Not like those closed camps — people are free to move.

But if you say, “No, I cannot go to the refugee settlement. I am going to stay here [in Kampala],” the only question they ask is: “Do you have anything to do in Kampala? Do you have any business? How are you going to live here, survive here? Because we cannot give you accommodation. We cannot provide food. There is nothing that we give.”

“The majority of refugees are young people and women. Most of these young people don’t have access to education; it’s a bad situation.”

In most cases, people have to lie. Myself, I remember we said, “Yeah, we can stay here because we have a business,” but we never had any business in Kampala. Myself and my family, we came from a city, we never came from a village, so we thought that’s where we fitted.

Q: How did you deal with finding housing, food and work?

A: We came with a small amount of money to pay rent and buy food for three months. After three months, we didn’t have anything. We started receiving pressure from the landlord, and he said, “You have to leave my house.” We went to the person my dad knew, because he had two rooms at his place. He also had a big family in those two rooms, but it was a place to sleep.

For Congolese, the churches play a very big role, because Congolese have so many churches in Kampala. Many new arrivals are allowed to sleep in the church as they are looking for another solution. So we spent time there.

In Uganda, refugees are allowed to work under the Uganda Refugee Act of 2006. It gives the refugee the right to work and the freedom of movement. We had no choice other than join with other people who were doing businesses. My sister joined the wife of the person my father knew, who at that time was selling Congolese fabrics printed for clothes, and also jewelries.

[See: In Kinshasa, building a fashion industry one stitch at a time]

Myself, I was connected through Alliance Française to a rich Ugandan family that was looking for someone to teach them French at home, because that family was planning to move to Paris. I managed to get enough money to rent another house, two rooms, for my family.

Q: Why did you found YARID?

A: I joined my two colleagues in Kampala to start this organization because there was a very big problem, especially for the young people: The majority of refugees are young people and women. Most of these young people don’t have access to education; it’s a bad situation. We wanted to come up with something to support those young people. We wanted just to create a space where people could come and join and start discussing issues that are affecting our lives.

As we were looking for what you can use to gather those young people, we came up with the idea of setting up football games. It’s helped us to bring together hundreds of young people from different nationalities but also from the local Ugandan population. Because when you talk about football, the young people don’t mind where this person comes from and this one. They just all come together and start playing. We were looking for a way we can pull the people together.

[See: More than half of all refugees live in urban areas. Here’s what that means for cities.]

When we sat down and started talking, we identified the major problem that people were facing was the language. The majority of them come from French-speaking countries. That was a very big issue. If you don’t know English and maybe also the local languages, you can’t completely do anything.

We decided to start with English classes, because we already had people in the community who could speak English, and they volunteered their time to start training. For space to hold the classes, we knew there was so many churches. We approached those pastors and one of them accepted to give us the church to start using it as training place. That is how we started with the classes. Right now, we have so many English classes. We have classes in the morning. We have classes in the afternoon. We have classes in the evening.

We now have programmes for illiterate people, a women-empowerment project, computer training, a job-readiness and placement programme for skilled professionals, and sports programmes especially for those who don’t work or go to school. This organization was built by volunteers, both locals and internationals. We don’t have, up to now, any permanent funding.

Q: This situation where so many refugees are living in cities — what is working and what needs to be fixed?

A: Even from UNHCR, the U. N. refugee agency itself, it took too long to recognize the presence of refugees in urban areas. UNHCR had a policy from 1997 that said all the refugees have to be in the camps. In September 2009, UNHCR came up with a policy on protection for refugees in urban areas. In that policy, they recognize the presence of urban refugees, and they say that a refugee, wherever he is, in the urban areas or in the settlements, they have to be supported.

With that policy, there is always a gap between the policies and the practice. In that 2009 policy, there’s so many good things, but when you see on the ground the implementation — when you are a refugee and you need support, especially when it comes to accommodation and food, you go to UNHCR. And the only solution for them is to say, “We cannot support you here. If you want our support, we are going to take to the refugee settlement.”

Today everyone is praising Uganda, saying Uganda has one of the best refugee policies in the world. Yes, it’s true, because actually Uganda, I can say, has made a difference when you compare its policy with neighbouring countries such as Kenya. The fact that they’re giving refugees the right to work and freedom of movement.

[See: Providing shelter in urban Iraq: Where the displaced meet the poor]

But when it comes to practical things — look at education. By the national policy, refugees have the right to enjoy free education — they call it free primary education, but it is not free when you go on the ground and see what is taking place. The parents are supposed to pay school fees. They’re supposed to buy a uniform, and every school has its own uniform — you cannot buy it from outside. You have to buy scholastic materials, and when you put the cost together, it is too much. Even some local people cannot afford it. It is not free.

Q: If you could fix a few things, what would you fix and who would fix them?

A: To go back again to the Refugee Act of Uganda. Of course it’s good, because it’s helped so many refugees —  I always say that if you give me freedom, that is everything.

But Uganda is a country where everything is centralized at the top, at the ministry level. Most of this information concerning refugees, even these policies, they are not known at the local level. When you go to the divisions, when you go to these local leaders, they don’t completely know anything.

“The refugee crisis today needs to be taken more seriously, and all the countries should understand that this is really shared responsibility.”

I remember in my experience of supporting so many refugee community organizations to be registered, there was a small organization that wanted to register as a community-based organization. For this, you have to go to the Kampala Capital City Authority — the local government. So I went there and I presented the files, and they were puzzled. He said, “No, no, we don’t deal with refugees here, go away.”

I was trying to explain to him. So I jumped on a boda boda [motorbike taxi] and went back to my office. I picked up that Refugee Act, because I had a copy, and I went back there. And again, I told him, “We have this, and it says that we are supposed to come here.” He didn’t feel okay with that. So this is an example.

There is a new policy called Rehope — that’s Refugee and Host Population Empowerment. The UNHCR, in the policy, they want to come up with a project that supports both refugees and the communities, and they have a plan to work directly with the local government. And again, we can’t see its implementation up to now. That’s a very nice policy, believe me, but only if they decide to implement it. When you go on the ground, you don’t see it. You don’t really feel that there is a policy that is being implemented.

Q: Are things moving in the right direction? Are you hopeful?

A: There is hope. Going a few years back, even a person like me wouldn’t be allowed to come to meetings [like the one in Bonn]. When when we get this opportunity, we take it, and we are the resource for these issues. When I get these opportunities, if I talk about three things, maybe at least one thing is taken into consideration.

The refugee crisis today needs to be taken more seriously, and all the countries should understand that this is really shared responsibility. Here in Germany, it’s a country that really opened the doors for thousands of refugees. But others, they just locked them out. They’re building walls.

All the countries should take their responsibilities and share this. I’m a little bit worried if it continues in Uganda like this. Refugees are coming in, thousands every day. But at a certain point, Uganda’s going to be overwhelmed. It needs all the countries to come together to solve this problem.

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Christopher Swope is managing editor of Citiscope. Full bio

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