As a Goodwill Ambassador for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, I am always struck by the scale and complexity of the challenges for refugees. There are just under 22 million refugees and half of these are children.
That’s over 10 million children who have been forced to leave everything they know behind to escape conflict, violence and persecution. The most vulnerable of this group are the unaccompanied children, often arriving at UNHCR camps with no knowledge of whether their parents are safe or even alive.
I met one of these children when I was visiting Mahama camp in Rwanda with UNHCR.
Mahama refugee camp was established to support people caught in the conflict in neighbouring Burundi and when I visited it was already sheltering over 50,000 people. The really astonishing fact was that over 52% of the population were children.
Pelagie is a 16 year old girl who lives there - she made a lasting impression on me. She had arrived as an unaccompanied minor to the camp a year ago with three other girls, the youngest just 13. None of them had known each other before setting off on their dangerous journeys. As you can imagine, the journey to flee the violence in Burundi was a really frightening experience - without the protection of an adult, children like these girls are even more exposed to the risks of malnourishment, disease, exploitation and abuse.
Pelagie has lost both of her parents and the others continue to live in daily fear for the safety of their families. Not knowing if they can ever go home, they face indefinite life in the camp and an uncertain future. It’s a nightmare of a situation to be in.
Against these horrors, the girls inspire my admiration for their unwavering strength and resilience. Pelagie boasts of her skills as a saleswoman. Talking of her ingenuity when it comes to trading in Mahama camp’s market, a smile breaks across her serious face, and she tells me with pride how she has been able to acquire a few personal items such as some hand lotion and a small comb.
Yet the trauma Pelagie has been through and her own vulnerability is evident, in another situation she would be receiving counselling.
One of the incredible aspects about this camp is the creativity and dedication of its staff to providing the vulnerable children in their care, not only with schools and education, but also with centres where they can participate in sports such as soccer and volleyball or safe areas where they can hang out and spend time with their peers. It’s so important to create the space for children – boys and girls - to simply play and grow up without fear.
UNHCR provides a safe space for Pelagie and children like her, when we spoke she was waiting to be moved from her tent to a more secure house with a metal roof and a lock on the door. It may not seem much but this small element of security is a great confidence boost as it provides a sense of stability and safety. Many others have already begun to plant small gardens around their new houses. It makes a huge difference!
For unaccompanied children, the camp has many support systems. At the start, the children live together in groups of four, and are looked after by adults who volunteer as ‘foster’ parents and live nearby. The lady who oversees Pelagie was so lovely with her own baby and children to look after as well. After a while each child is placed into an existing family which helps to give the children a sense of belonging. UNHCR child protection officers are frequently available to give assistance, and many of UNHCR’s partner NGOs are also there offering other much needed services.
In spite of all that these people have been through, I was struck most by the optimism of Mahama. The children are happy, they’re running around, they have a lot of choice of what to do with their time and there are people who provide regular support. When we left the camp, we came across a group of young girls practicing a traditional Burundian dance to perform in the local town with the drummers– there was such a carefree enthusiasm and energy, and a feeling of freedom that only comes from feeling safe. UNHCR has helped create that feeling and I really hope they can go home soon to really begin their lives again.
Australia for UNHCR is calling on Australians to help protect and care for children who have become orphaned or separated from their parents in the chaos of conflict. Their appeal shares powerful stories of unaccompanied children feeling conflict zones around the world, from Myanmar to Syria, Yemen and South Sudan.
To protect children fleeing conflict, Australia for UNHCR has launched a national appeal. Please support at www.unrefugees.org.au/childrenalone