Bukavu is a city located on the eastern border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). It is known for being located in one of Africa’s most emblematic, beautiful, and mineral-rich areas – the Great Lakes Region, on the shores of beautiful Lake Kivu. It is also known for being at the heart of constant armed conflict taking place in the towns and forests around it.
These conflicts have been going on for decades, fueled by a myriad of armed groups obeying different political objectives and played by the invisible hands and minds of huge external strategic and economic interests.
This violence has provoked and keeps provoking an endless exodus of people in all directions, fleeing armed conflict or looking for just any means of survival, having seen their households pillaged and their economic autonomy destroyed. Every year, South Kivu Province’s capital – Bukavu bids farewell to thousands of future refugees and internally displaced people.
“Constant war changed my life and that of my family forever. That is why I left. I was 20 years old” says Noella Kabale, who arrived from South Kivu to Uganda in 2011 “I simply witnessed too many atrocities”.
Like most of the Congolese refugees in Uganda, Noella arrived in Mbarara, Uganda’s most southern east city, just a few kilometers from DRC’s northeastern border.
Noella needed urgent medical treatment and – unlike many others – she was lucky enough to run into the right people, at the right time. This was a life-changer in Noella’s situation. She started getting the medical care that saved her life.
“During that time, I was surprised to see so many Congolese refugees around like me, wandering around in the streets, the public offices, the police stations, and the hospitals. Many were as lost as me, others had found their way around. I started hearing so many challenging stories, of pain but also of survival” recalls Noella.
Noella finally reached Kampala, wherewith the support of different people, she found a place to stay in Katwe, Uganda’s capital biggest slum that welcomes about 30% of the urban refugees of Kampala. During that time, she started connecting with other Congolese who had escaped the same fate of war and violence and were sharing Katwe’s marginal conditions.
She registered for training on psychological support. “I was looking for a way to overcome the sadness that had gotten over me, but this training provided me, not only valuable tools for me to focus on other perspectives, but also an opportunity to help my Congolese fellow people. After all, we all shared a common history of resilience” recalls Noella.
The needs were as diverse as the people and their stories. Noella started focusing on survivors of gender-based violence, sexual exploitation, robbery, and drug addictions “the life in the slum represents in itself a risk for anyone, but in particular for refugees” says Noella, “conditions are harsh and refugees are extremely vulnerable”.
“I work with girls and women from 14 to 35 y/o. Many of them have been already subjected to rape, or are victims of daily exploitation and abuse”, explains Noella, “I choose to work with them because I was also a young woman when I arrived here”.
Noella founded Real Uganda in 2017, focusing her energy and creativity on those girls and women living in the slum. Her organization covers a wide range of activities from gender-based violence (identification, survival, and prevention) and advocacy to income-generating activities and economic autonomy (skill-building).
“I decided that women would be at the center of all my effort” explains Noella, “I want to help them rediscover the power in them and remind them that life does not end when they become refugees. It also becomes an opportunity for a new life. I want to show them that hope.”
Noella represents an example of the power of a refugee woman. Today, she sits (one out of the three existing seats) as a Member of Parliament for Urban Refugee affairs and she is the only female. She also participates on behalf of refugees in regular high-level meetings on refugee affairs, which include the participation of local government structures, humanitarian organizations, and the private sector, ensuring that the grassroots voices of refugee women be heard at the level of decision making.
Like the whole world, Refugee Entrepreneurship Association Limited (REAL) Uganda had to adapt to the challenges imposed by the pandemic. The most urgent issue was responding to hundreds of people in need of food and basic hygienic materials to prevent the further spreading of the virus amongst refugees. So far 2,300 people have benefited from this support.
The production of face masks was ensured amongst refugees through the training of a group of girls, who after making them, distributed them equally for free amongst refugees, host communities, people in jail, and the police.
Through the UR COVID-19 grant support, REAL directly assisted 25 refugee and host community small scale businesses that had been hit by the COVID-19 pandemic with micro business cash grants. The savings proceeds from the twenty-five businesses started an initiative called the Support Her Challenge adding three new businesses and increasing the micro-grant support rendered to twenty-eight businesses. REAL also equipped twenty young women through African apparel design and tailoring training to acquire income generation skills and improve their livelihood during and post the COVID-19 crisis. Following the UR Income Generation Activity (IGA) training, REAL launched an African clothing line pioneering bold African prints as an IGA to diversify their sources of income. Recently, REAL created employment opportunities for six persons as a result of the IGA operations and is working on expanding its market reach through promotional sales activities including remote digital marketing.
REAL also identified a need for reusable sanitary pads among refugee youth and women in Kampala, who majority can not afford to purchase disposable sanitary pads and end up not going to school or conducting their businesses during their menstrual cycle. REAL identified refusable materials including cloth Kitengi to make these pads. It has so far distributed the reusable sanitary pads to 25 women and 25 girls and is on track to produce 500 more pads.
Last but not least, Real Uganda ensured that COVID-related preventive messages be equally accessible to refugees in their local languages (Lingala, Swahili, Arabic, and French).
“I meet refugee women of all ages on a daily basis, I hear their stories and pass them on constantly in all directions” explains Noella, “I realize that this work is contributing to change in the narrative related to women refugees and thus, of their own communities.”
To see a change of behavior achieved through the constant work of advocacy is my prize.
My work matters because it is a tool to empower my refugee community- regardless of nationalities, to foster opportunities and thus transform the lives, not only of women but of the refugee community as a whole.
When I came to Uganda, I came alone and I was meant to reunite with my siblings one year later. What I found is a much larger family and the occasion to put together a message of hope that touches refugees like me, a message that reaches not only our community but even our respective countries of origin.”