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Meet three Congolese families living in Zambia’s largest refugee transit centre

By Ruth Ansah Ayisi

NCHELENGE, Zambia, 25 April 2018 – Violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has driven nearly 268,000 children into neighbouring countries, including Zambia. The Kenani Refugee Transit Centre on the Zambian border is currently hosting over 14,000 Congolese refugees, with an average of 100 new arrivals a day. Sixty per cent of them are children.

Meet three mothers and their children who embarked on days-long treks to reach safety, and are now recovering from the devastation of losing homes and family members to conflict.

© UNICEF Zambia/2018/Ayisi
Maliselina holds Stefan in her lap, surrounded by her other family members. She was heavily pregnant when they escaped violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Born on the run: Maliselina and Stefan

Maliselina Kambemba was five months pregnant when she fled violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo with her husband and eight children. The family traveled on foot through the forest to the Zambian border at Lake Mweru. There, they had little food, drank water from the lake and slept under trees for three days.

That was three months ago. Now safely in Zambia, the family lives in a tent at the Kenani Transit Centre. Maliselina gave birth to her son Stefan two weeks ago, and, despite the traumatic events of the pregnancy, baby Stefan had a healthy start.

Before giving birth, Maliselina went for prenatal care to the transit camp’s health unit, which is run by the Zambian Ministry of Health, with support from UNICEF. She then gave birth at the local hospital. There she received guidance to breastfeed Stefan within the first hour of his birth, and says that she will exclusively breastfeed him for six months before introducing solid foods.

Maliselina says all her family are well. Her main challenge now is to feed the family on the rations they were given. She remembers how back in Congo they grew all the food they needed and were able to sell the surplus produce too. “I just want to be able to have money to provide for the family, and have my older children in school. Then our life can be good,” she says, gently wrapping Stefan in a colourful cloth and laying him on the mat beside her.

© UNICEF Zambia/2018/Ayisi
Belita feeds Chimshimba therapeutic milk with a syringe. When they arrived at the Kenani Transit Centre, he was severely malnourished and had to be admitted to the hospital.

Fighting malnutrition: Belita and Chimshimba

Belita and 19-month-old Chimshimba recently arrived in Zambia from the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo. On the trek there, they spent two days sleeping in the bush with little access to food and water. Chimshimba suffered repeated episodes of diarrhoea and became dangerously thin and dehydrated. By the time that they registered at the Kenani Transit Centre, Chimshimba had to be admitted to the hospital. His malnutrition was so severe that his feet were swollen from fluid retention and he was too weak to sit.

Chimshimba is one of more than 200 Congolese refugee children from the centre who are being treated for severe acute malnutrition. A UNICEF-supported nutrition assessment of refugee children at the camp shows dangerously high malnutrition rates at 13.2 per cent. A month ago, three children who were being treated for severe acute malnutrition at the hospital died when their mothers took them home before they were ready to be discharged.

Belita stays with Chimshimba at the hospital day and night while her sister looks after her other children. Five days aftering being admitted, he shows some signs of improvement as Belita feeds him therapeutic milk with a syringe, painstakingly drip-feeding the milk into his mouth. His feet are no longer swollen and he can sit, but he is still weak and parts of his skin are peeling off, leaving raw patches, which he tries to scratch. Belita looks thin too, but she does not complain. “I will stay with him at the hospital for as long as is needed,” she says.

© UNICEF Zambia/2018/Ayisi
Mammy lies down inside her tent at the Kenani Refugee Transit Centre. She and her brother lost their parents when their village in the Democratic Republic of Congo was attacked.

Forgetting the trauma of war: Mammy and Jedo

Mammy, 15, and Jedo, 12, were in school in the Democratic Republic of Congo when they learned that their village was under attack and their parents had been killed. They immediately fled, and were still in their school uniforms when Katyete Kuimba, a fellow villager, took them under her wing. She was also fleeing with her family, but had been separated from her husband and some of her children. “I heard later my husband has also been killed… my other children were with my husband. Now I don’t know where they are,” she says.

It took them a month on foot to reach the Zambian border, often sleeping by the river. They eventually arrived at the Kenani Transit Centre, just over three months ago.

Besides finally finding refuge at the camp, Katyete and her children found relief from the trauma at a child-friendly space, run by the Plan International and Save the Children, with support from UNICEF. The spaces offer informal education, sport, dance and other activities, as well as psychosocial counselling. Both spaces are set in spacious fenced off areas that have tents, swings, a makeshift football pitch, and colourful mats under trees providing shade.

Mammy and Jedo are both receiving counselling at the centre. Mammy has a quiet determination regarding her future. “I love it [here],” she says, her eyes wide and sad. “I just want to keep learning and learning. I want to be a doctor.” Jedo agrees: “I want to learn too; I need to learn new things.”


UNICEF supports the response to the refugee influx to Zambia, particularly in the areas of child protection, water, sanitation and hygiene, education, nutrition, and health, under the overall leadership of UNHCR and the Government, and with major funding from the United Nations’ Central Emergency Response Fund.

UNICEF is also working with the Government and NGOs to build semi-permanent child-friendly spaces and youth corners at the new Mantapala settlement, where many Congolese refugees will move once basic social services have been put in place.

>> Learn more about UNICEF’s response in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

>> Read next: All aboard for a new life in Zambia



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