Ernest and his siblings find love and protection in a foster family in Nyarugusu refugee camp

Foster families can help unaccompanied children overcome the trauma of being separated from their parents or relatives

By Chiara Frisone
Siblings Ernest, Bahati and Issa Habonimana with their foster mother Alice Mwajuma.
UNICEF Tanzania/2016/Frisone
27 May 2016

It’s a hot afternoon in Nyaragusu refugee camp, north-western Tanzania. A group of children – boys and girls – is kicking a ball around. They have just returned home from school and are spending some time playing before helping their families prepare dinner. Among them are 17 year old Ernest and his two siblings Bahati, 11 and Issa, 9 who have arrived in Nyaragusu a few months ago after feeling violent clashes in their home country Burundi.

“I decided to run away because my parents were killed and life was not good in Burundi. I saw other people leaving, so I decided to go with them”

– Ernest
Siblings Ernest, Bahati and Issa Habonimana play with a ball
UNICEF Tanzania/2016/Frisone
Siblings Ernest, Bahati and Issa Habonimana play with a ball in Nyaragusu refugee camp, north west Tanzania.

“Home” in Nyaragusu is one of the thousands of tents donated by relief partners including UNICEF. This refugee camp hosts 133,000 people, half of which are Burundian refugees who, following demonstrations and acts of violence that engulfed the country in April last year, fled to neighboring countries – Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The remaining refugees in Nyaragusu are Congolese who have been living in the camp for over a decade.

Although violence has somewhat diminished since last year, Burundians continue to cross the border into Tanzania at an average of 100 per day. Tanzania currently hosts over 138,000 Burundian refugees, more than half of the 263,000 Burundians who have fled their country so far. According to UNICEF, more than 60 per cent of these refugees are children under the age of 18.

Siblings Bahati and Issa Habonimana play in Nyaragusu refugee camp, north west Tanzania.
Siblings Bahati and Issa Habonimana play in Nyaragusu refugee camp, north west Tanzania.

Ernest and his siblings took the long journey from the capital Bujumbura mostly on foot. “We would ask other people for food, but many nights we would go to sleep hungry. We would sleep anywhere, on the bare ground”. Although they travelled without a parent or relative, they were most likely to have been helped or assisted by the thousands of other people who were taking the same journey to safety.

“We left with nothing, not even our clothes”

– Ernest

They crossed the border into Kagunga, north-western Tanzania, and then travelled further east to Manyovu, where UNHCR established a reception centre. From Manyovu they were then transferred by bus to Nyaragusu where they were registered as unaccompanied children – children who have been separated from both parents and other relatives and are not being cared for by an adult. As such, they were immediately eligible to live with a foster family that was later identified for them by UNICEF’s partner, the International Rescue Committee (IRC).

UNICEF Tanzania/2016/Frisone
Ernest Habonimana’s favourite game is football.

“Among the unaccompanied children arriving from Burundi some have seen and experienced horrible acts of violence, including the murder of their parents and loved ones, or may have been separated from their parents while fleeing to safety,” Stephanie Shanler, Child Protection Officer with UNICEF, said. “Their situation is dire and it is critical that interim, safe care be provided as soon as possible after their arrival into Tanzania, and that they receive psychosocial support”.

UNICEF and IRC have helped place more than 1,500 unaccompanied children in the care of foster families who also live in the camps. These are carefully selected families that have agreed to take in one or more children and look after them until they are reunited with their parents or relatives.

Single parent Alice Mwajuma is one such family. She agreed to take in Ernest, Bahati and Issa because she only had one child of her own to look after and felt she could help other children living in the camp.

“I was given these children by the IRC, because they see me as a parent, so I agreed to look after them. Even thought they are not my children, I treat them as if they were.”

– Alice

Foster families help bring some routine back into the lives of children like Ernest by taking care of their daily needs and providing an environment where they feel safe and protected. According to Kedir Ahmed, Child and Youth Protection and Development Coordinator with IRC, “foster families can help unaccompanied children overcome the trauma of being separated from their parents or relatives and help bring back a sense of normalcy in their lives - albeit a new sense of 'normal'. They provide valuable support in the children's education and help them integrate in the community.”

Child running
UNICEF Tanzania/2016/Frisone
Nyarugusu is home to more than 133,000 people, half of which are Burundian refugees.

Dealing with the trauma of losing both parents is not easy, especially for children of Ernest’s age. “I feel fine but I just have too many worries, that's why I don't concentrate on my studies,” Ernest says. However, Alice is doing what she can to make him feel loved and cared for. “Ernest becomes worried when sees other children with their parents who remind him of his own parents,” Alice says. “But I tell him that what happened to his parents was an accident and I’m also here as his parent”.

Ernest is focused on completing his studies and dreams for a future outside the camp. “When I grow up, after finishing my studies I will look for a job, maybe I can be a journalist. I have no problem going anywhere, as long as I get good studies and peace,” Ernest concludes.

And peace is, of course, what Alice ultimately wants, for herself and her children. “I would like live in peace and do usual activities, just like other people outside the camp. I want them [Ernest and his siblings] to appreciate and thank me when they grow up, even though they lost their parents they can say they had a mother who raised them,” Alice concludes.