This week, we had the opportunity to speak with Wereje Benson, a mission director of COBURWAS International Youth Organization to Transform Africa. Mr Benson is living and working in Kyangwali Refugee Settlement, where our very own community partner Celestin spent decades of his life, and where we are currently coordinating direct relief to refugee families who are finding it more and more difficult to make ends meet in light of the increasingly cramped settlement conditions. Below, Mr Benson gives a frank update as to the current situation in the settlement. We continue to hope that this oral history project serves as a platform for advocacy and moves people to make decisions both politically and financially that will ease the burden refugees face. While there is a long road to bettering the lives of refugees and reversing the damage that war, famine, and climate crisis have created in the lives of millions around the world, the most immediate needs of refugees are food and medical care. It is a difficult time for many due to the economic constraints of COVID-19; however, we ask those who are willing and able to consider a donation that will go directly to meeting these immediate needs of families within the Kyangwali community here. Please listen to and share Mr Benson's story, below.
Hello, [this is] Wereje Benson, I live in Kyangwali Refugee Settlement, and I came here when I was young in 1997 so I’ve been doing community work with an organization called Ciyota International Youth Organization to Transform Africa. It is the organization I co-founded, we have been operating for the last fourteen years. So I came here to Kyangwali because of the increment of refugees have been living in the camp allowed because of studies and other reasons. So I came here for a mission, I came here as a missionary. I have been doing community outreaches and various programs. So the challenge here is due to the influx of refugees from DRC, today there is more than 100,000 refugees here and because of that – so, each refugee gets a very small plot of land. Previously, refugees would get land and then they dig to feed themselves. But because the number increased, they have very small plots. So they cannot easily feed themselves. The other issue is that each refugee gets 0.2 cents per month – no, per day. Yeah. 0.2 cents per day to feed themselves. So that one is practically impossible, which makes refugees really suffer. But right where I am, I look at two girls who got married when they were fourteen, both of them have been here for seven months, one of them has six children and another has two. So that means it’s a family for ten people living in a small house. Now, feeding these children is very hard and almost impossible. Where they sleep, they sleep on the ground, and of course the issues of them going to school, like the children going to school, that is almost impossible. But for now, I think they need just food. Because for all these years I’ve been speaking with these girls, but they—the fathers of these children are nowhere to be seen in the last seven months. So in the room where I stay when I look on the other side, there is another woman with two babies or so without a husband. Even on my left hand side, the same. So I am trying to mean I am surrounded by mainly women without husbands but with many children, and these women—it is not easy for them to do hard labor, but also they do the work for them to give something to their children. I’ve been moving around here. Most of the children here are malnourished, and in fact unfortunately I have attended more than three burials especial of children who have been sick of malnutrition. I struggled to take one to the hospital and give them food but unfortunately they can’t survive.
So those are just issues and practical issues that I see, just five meters away from where I am. Then of course I’ve seen pregnant women who are almost living outside, and there is another family I visited and they have a girl who is very ill, and I told them to take the girl to the hospital, so they tried to go to the hospital and this young girl was transferred to one of the towns eighty kilometers from here. Because the mother did not have a phone, so it was not easy for me to follow up and contact her and find out what was happening. So through struggling and finding out what was happening, I got my friend who lived in that town, and I told him, I gave him description of this woman and the sick daughter. So my friend moved to the hospital and started searching for the woman. My friend saw the woman and by this time, the woman had spent like three days in the hospital without even being given medication because she had less than two dollars which could not be given to the doctors. So no money, refugees are supposed to be treated for free. But [sigh] things happen that cannot easily be explained. Not caring about refugees. So I sent the money to my friend so he can give the doctor and have the doctor now start looking for the blood, because now the girl had lost too much blood and she had become anemic. And all those days without any medication, unfortunately after just like 10 minutes my friend told me that “You have struggled in vain,” that the girl had passed away. So for the last six to seven months I have been here. That is one of the stories that have shocked me. Because I saw this girl when she was still alive. And then again I could not see her again. So every time I meet the mother – one of the foods that Celestin sent, I took it there. And I keep seeing her, remembering this girl who died. So those are some of the tough stories, that even me to explain them is very challenging.
So now from the time I’ve been here, of course I’ve been getting clothes from churches and friends and individuals. So I’ve been distributing clothes, I’ve been distributing soap, I’ve been distributing some small money for people and especial for medication. I’ve been fixing small holes in homes. Like, where I am, I don’t know exactly how many elder people –like, women who are from sixty, sixty years to eighty, ninety—who are living alone. Some of them have no children, some of them told me they were left in the DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo] or others died. So [sigh], yeah. It’s not easy. It’s just like ten meters away from where I stay –by the way, I’m staying in a church—so from here to ten meters, there is a man who is sixty, sixty something years old, and he has two boys, young boys, like ten, twelve years, and a girl. So they did not come here with their mothers. The man is old, he cannot work, and the children are so young. So when you look at lives of all these people, it is something not easy to explain. It is tough. Yeah, so for these days I’ve been trying to teach small managements of small businesses…and small money to feed themselves. I’ve tried it by land far away from the refugee camp, and I’ve been trying to move like four hours walking, like four and a half walking to go and farm there, so they can…raise food for themselves. So the situation is worse, the children are malnourished, for elderlies, for very many women who are living alone without their husbands and many of them got married when they were still young. So still the situation is very complex here. So and I was saying that from the time I’ve been here, we have seven month and one hundred families. And with the food that Celestin sent to me specifically, we served twenty families and then others that we could give them half food. So there is a measurement of food, we could give to each family but when families became many and then there are other families, we just started to give them food to share, so…thank you again for supporting, thank you for making this happen, sometime it’s not easy to understand it when you’re not on the ground, but I wanted to thank you for the great heart and be blessed. Thank you.
In the video below, two of our team members, Stephanie and Celestin, speak about how coronavirus is affecting the refugee community in Pittsburgh and back in the settlements. Celestin talks about the precautions he and his family are taking, how life in Pittsburgh has changed due to the virus, and his surprise that the United States leads in the number of coronavirus cases globally. Celestin also has begun a fundraiser to coordinate direct and immediate support to refugees in the camps who are suffering from a disrupted supply chain and left people hungry and thirsty while also trying to stay safe from the virus.
By: Celestin M.
I am very happy again to update my story, especially as a Refugee from DRC, and bring your attention to some organizations which are doing good things for refugees in Africa.
It was in 1996 when war broke out in the eastern Congo DRC. My family finished almost 6 months sleeping in the bush [rather than in our home. It was too dangerous to stay in the village at night because of the war]. I was young--around 12 years--with my four siblings.
Then later, it was one Tuesday. I had gone to the market with my daddy. While in the market, they started shutting bombs. These were more than enough. People died in front of my eyes. Our customs were destroyed.
By that time, we finished around 3 days before crossing to Uganda on foot. Me and my Dad, we didn’t know where my mom and my four siblings went. It was after three days, we meet them at the transit center in Uganda known as Nyakabande reception center. By pure luck and grace, we found them and we were not separated after this.
After six months, we were taken to to the Settlement in 05/09/1997. This place is called settlement because people get a piece of land to cultivate some greens. But life was not easy. Many people died in the camp/settlement. There was poor education: no high school, two elementary schools, serving around 45,000 people and mostly children without parents. I could not go to school myself. Life was hard after my elementary school. I could not continue with the school because my family could not manage to take me to high school [due to school fees.]
With the help of COBURWAS/CIYOTA I managed to go to school and have Certificate in project planning and management, through CIYOTA. With all the life story I went through, I and my fellow refugees, CIYOTA has been so much to us.
The work they are doing is a lot: CIYOTA is an organization started by refugees in Kyangwali settlement that works in education for refugees and children in the settlement and worldwide. Their bio says, "COBURWAS International Youth Organization to Transform Africa (CIYOTA) is a volunteer-based, non-profit organization established by refugee youth in December 2005 in Kyangwali refugee settlement, Uganda. The founders arrived in Kyangwali from Congo (DRC), Burundi, Uganda, Rwanda and Sudan (CO-BU-RWA-S) along with thousands of refugees fleeing violence and problems resulting from conflicts in their home countries. What began as an inclusive youth-led club set to protect and improve the lives of the most vulnerable in their midst, CIYOTA has now become a source and model of educational excellence, not just for conflict-affected African refugees but also for local Ugandans. CIYOTA recognizes the power of education as a pathway out of poverty, as well as a means to heal conflict, create social cohesion, and spur economic growth. Education for youth through methods that also build corresponding commitment and support of families and the community is therefore the focus of CIYOTA’s work." It was thanks to this organization that I received my education and that thousands of other refugees have gone to school in Kyangwali settlement. We have done all this in spite of the wars and our experiences.
Now you can see that COBURWAS school is ranked some of the best in Uganda.
And I pray hard that God can remember my people in the camps in Africa, even others in DRC. Right now, people are becoming refugees in their own country. As I talk now, where I came from in the refugee camp, it hosts 113,000 refugees. It means if I come together, the whole country like Uganda hosts like 1.2 Million refugees. It’s not easy and most of them are from DRC and South Sudan.
I appreciate the the government of Uganda for accepting refugees to stay peaceful in the country. I thank the well wishers and donors, the implementing agencies like UNHCR, for the great work done by them on the other side. I wish to thank the Government of the USA also for hosting refugees from different countries.
But moreso, I request them to really add more. There is more for them to do. Because we still have a lot to do, especially in Africa. I am in the USA now, but there are millions of people from my country and people I love who are still in these bad conditions. Please consider helping COBURWAS/CIYOTA continue their mission. They are making life better for people every day. This is all we can ask.
I request those who fear supporting refugees can support some of the agencies which help refugees like in Uganda and the USA. I have some examples of the organizations like COBURWAS/CIYOTA, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the Jewish Family and Community Services here in Pittsburgh, and AJAPO in Pittsburgh, to mention a few. You can donate your time, your money, your work to the above organizations for better future for young children in schools and other activities.
I am fine now, based in the USA in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. But with your help Africa has a chance, and the Congo can change. Thank you.
Published by Celestin as part of the Pittsburgh Refugee Stories Oral History Project with English language support from Megan Crutcher.
By: Megan Crutcher
We set forth on this project seeking to break prominent narratives of African refugees in the United States and Pittsburgh—from the national security myth, to the ‘model refugee’ trope, to the focus on refugee hardships over successes. We asked how and why African refugees have come to Pittsburgh, what their experiences with America have been, and how they see Africa, family, the USA, home, and the refugee crisis in general. We asked narrators to guide the story and to share whatever they wanted us to know. We interviewed factory machine operators, mothers, fathers, students. The stories that follow will make you laugh, make you cry, transport you to another place and time, and ultimately—we hope—spur you (whoever you are) to action. We welcome future or alternate directions to this project.
We asked for connections. What we received were enduring, vibrant partnerships with narrators—people who have faced unspeakable hardship yet hold incredible hopes and dreams for life in America. And despite the historic instability forced upon them, most of the narrators saw America as a home and Americans as people who supported and welcomed refugees.
Narrator Celestin spelled it out the best. Why did we embark on this project? Why African refugees in Pittsburgh? He said,
"Because the communities down there is suffering. Refugees in the camps. Like, right now, I know there are one hundred plus. Like Uganda only is carrying 1.3 [million] refugees. So that’s too much. Whereby you can find, like, when they put the ban of the United States not receiving more refugees—I don’t know where they are going. I don’t know how they will survive. Because, I myself, I have my in-laws there. My brother in-laws, my sister in-laws, my father, my mother in-laws, they are all still in Africa. They have their cases, but they have never gone anywhere because of too much back, always. Nothing happening to them. So you find we are worried of how the life continues, and yet more refugees are coming in from Democratic Republic of Congo. Up to now, people are still fighting. People—more refugees coming. So life is not easy as I talk right now. When you go to different countries, you find people are suffering. Not only Congo but also other refugees. As I talk to you know, I remember South Sudan is in trouble. Many refugees are coming in. As I talk to you now, many people from Syria, they are now fleeing from Syria to different countries. So it’s not only Congo, it’s not only Sudan, not Syrians, but different refugees coming from worldwide. So when I see like all that one happening, when you go on Google, you go on the news, you find a lot of things happening, many people becoming refugees."