Clemantine Wamariya went years without taking a shower. Living with the filth and stench was still preferable to risking rape in a refugee camp bathroom.
Wamariya was six years old when, fleeing the 1994 Rwanda genocide. She walked through the gates of her first refugee camp, clutching her teenage sister's hand. It would be six more years before she again had a home not constructed out of blue and white United Nations tarps, and several more years before she became a Yale University grad and activist for displaced peoples. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
In June, the United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, announced 51-million people are currently homeless due to conflict --the most since the end of World War Two. The failure to resolve conflicts like Syria adds millions more refugees each year.
Wamariya's incredible success story is a testament to what refugees can achieve when every day is not just a fight for survival. She hopes her words will help move the world to take action and give refugees, if not a return home, then at least the chance to live with dignity.
When the genocide consumed Rwanda, Clemantine and her sister Claire were separated from their parents. Their grandparents were slaughtered as the sisters hid in a tree listening to the screams. They spent 100 days in hiding before joining thousands of other refugees streaming across the border into Burundi. Arriving at a UN refugee camp, workers assigned them numbers, dipping their hands in a bucket of ink to show they'd been counted. Eventually their names were recorded. They were issued a tent and blankets, and two days later they received food.
The sisters drifted from camp to camp, moving on when life in a camp became too dangerous or undignified. Along the way, Wamariya learned critical lessons for survival.
The rumble of approaching supply trucks sent her scrambling to be first in line for food. A sweet smile for a truck driver might result in an extra handful. One day's worth of maize flour could be stretched into two, and when firewood ran out and food couldn't be cooked, it was just barely possible to chew on raw kernels of corn.
Wamariya learned to trust no one. Don't go out at night for water or firewood, because walking in the dark put her at risk of rape. She told us sexual violence is one of the most common crimes in refugee camps. To shower was to risk crossing sexual predators who haunted the bathrooms.
She learned not to stray outside the camp unless absolutely necessary. Most refugee camps are essentially prisons because the people of surrounding communities view them as a threat to security and their already limited resources.
Mostly, she learned to wait. "Being in a refugee camp is just waiting. You wait and you wait. You don't even know what you're waiting for."
Life in a refugee camp is limbo. "Your life is frozen around you," she said.
It is not enough to give refugees the bare necessities like food and shelter, Wamariya said. Refugee children need education. Wamariya's own education was delayed by her years in camps. Many in the camps suffer mental illness, Wamariya said, and need mental care. Better policing is needed to protect women and girls. She also insisted all refugees should be taught that they still have rights, no matter where they live.
In 2000, Clemantine and Claire won the metaphorical lottery. They were among the small percentage accepted each year for permanent asylum in the United States. There, Wamariya enrolled in school for the first time since fleeing Rwanda. In 2006, she won the Oprah Winfrey National High School Essay Contest and received a surprise on the show: a reunion with her parents and other siblings after 12 years. She recently received her BA in literature from Yale. And now speaks out on behalf of those she left behind in the camps.
Having heard her story, we have to speak out as well.
Brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger founded a platform for social change that includes the international charity, Free The Children, the social enterprise, Me to We, and the youth empowerment movement, We Day.
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