This is not just any story and this is not just any young man. This story starts in Burundi where a 1-year-old baby is forced into the arms of another young mother because both of his parents have been murdered by the national army. The baby boy is too young to comprehend the gravity of the situation or the affects it will have on his life but he is hungry and cries to be fed. Violence in Burundi causes the young mother to flee the country in search of safety and security. She flees to Tanzania and to a refugee camp where the young boy will grow up. At age five he is separated from the woman who has taken care of him and becomes the responsibility of another man whom he will live with for the next 5 years. From there the man will disappear, likely to South Africa, in search of work and a better life. The boy, alone, scared, waits for the man to return as he was told to do. He sleeps anywhere he can rest his head. He suffers. Eventually a family leaving Tanzania take the young boy, now 10 years old, to the Dzaleka Refugee Camp, a place they are promised has a better future. It is here, in Dzaleka, where the boy will spend his formative years sleeping on a straw mat, concerned about the source of his next meal, schooling when possible and finding refuse in football games and model wire trucks made of old fermented beer cartons.
His family of circumstance stand by him just until their own biological children start to eat their way through the food rations provided. The parents reach a breaking point and force the boy to choose between quitting school to earn an income or living alone and unaccompanied. With wisdom beyond his years, he choses school. Now, independent, his knowledge and determination are his strengths that keep his head above the water as he treads to find a different path.
I met this boy in his 18th year, having spent 17 years of his young life living according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the local governments willing to house refugees. It is the developing countries that provide for a majority of refugees around the world posing the obvious question: “Why is it the poor countries that take on a lions share of the burden when it comes to taking care of asylum seekers and refugees?” Not in our backyard we say. Not in our backyard.
In a session just last week I was speaking to this boy who has become a young man with far too many responsibilities and stress for someone his age. He is a most genuine spirit with good intentions and a modest courage that speaks louder than his tenor pitched voice ever could. Without rations for the month of February he is scraping by on one cup of pourage per day provided by the primary school where he is a student. A 19-year-old 8th grader. Language barrier, war and basic need have kept him from school across multiple academic years and his grade level, given his age, represents the dire struggle this boy has survived through. I am proud to know him and humbled to realize that there are people living in this world that can prevail despite such tragedy. Our session that day never felt like a session between counselor and client but more like old friends getting to the nitty gritty about life’s priorities, hopes and dreams, and the questions and uncertainties that still plague us.
At one point in the conversation he disclosed that there are moments when he is physically present in the classroom yet his mind wanders and emotionally he finds himself with his head buried in his hands, “I have no family, I am hungry. I feel sorry for myself.” Despite my battle to hold back my eminent emotions they still got the best of me. My eyes reddened and welled up with heavy tears that seemed to be drawn from my eyes with exceptional gravitational force. No young man should have to be deal with this. As an old friend would, I attempted to provide some hope. “I have never felt sorry for you. I see in you a strong young man that has continued to overcome, has continued to fight and has made something of himself and for himself. You are more powerful than you know.” With that familiar smile that begins at the outside corners of his gaunt cheeks, he replied simply, “WOW.” Exactly. My sentiment Exactly.
When I see his dark eyes gazing from behind his mysterious expression I find myself smiling. This young man has made an impact on my life. His journey has inspired me and enriched my time here in Dzaleka. In one short word he managed to sum up his story in a way that other words cannot. WOW.