Born in Misery but Raised to Help
It was dark when the attackers crept into the refugee camp. The girl was fast asleep when the first gunshot rang. She woke up with a start. She had been exposed to a conflict zone before to miss the unmistakable clap of gun fire. More shots followed and bullets whizzed past. The camp went berserk. Screams from terrified people flooded the scene.
Panic seized her!
Without thinking twice, she shot from her mat and scrammed into the night. She had no idea where she was running to. She sped wildly, away from the horror and into the safety of the nearest forest. Many died that night. Her brother was among them.
And so Berthilde’s story starts.
Berthilde was born in a refugee camp in Rwanda but her tale has a shocking beginning. She never met her parents. Berthilde’s father was killed in a tragic car accident when her mother was pregnant with her. Her mother died while giving birth to her.
“I spent most of my childhood in a monastery, raised by nuns.” She reflected.
Although her parents were Burundians, Berthilde first stepped foot into the country when she was 23 – and only because she was fleeing a civil war in Rwanda. Back in her home country she thought she had found a safe haven until one night when things went haywire. That was the day their refugee camp was attacked by unknown assailants. Again, Berthilde was forced to run but this time she headed for the borders of Tanzania and worse she was alone. A destitute, Berthilde hoped for solace in Tanzania. Surprise awaited.
“The Tanzanian government rejected us. They tried to force us back into Rwanda, denying any knowledge of war in our country.” She recalled with disappointment. Eventually, the refugees were let in. Tanzania was a misery. Berthilde and her friends had to work odd jobs to survive. Berthilde knew that she had to keep moving.
“We heard that Malawi had refugee camps with decent living conditions. We started planning to travel there.” The journey to Malawi was a real struggle. Berthilde did not have enough money to cater for transport and that affected her travelling plans. It took her 3 years to finally leave Tanzania for Malawi.
“I had to work to earn money for transport and it was a slow progress.” She recollected. It is during this perilous period that she learnt tailoring, an expertise which proved useful at a later stage.
Berthilde arrived in Karonga, the Malawi – Tanzania border, in 2005 where the UNCHR transported her to a refugee camp in Mwanza and later Dzaleka in Dowa. The conditions at Dzaleka were appalling. The food ration she received was often insufficient to support her family of 5 children. Berthilde used her tailoring skills to open a small shop which helped her sustain her household. However, the hardships that her fellow refugees encountered, worried her. She soon discovered that many refugees lacked skills they could use to earn an income. Berthilde wanted to help. The question was how?
“I heard that there was an organisation called There is Hope just outside the camp which was helping refugees and Malawians by training them in some vocational skills.” She recounted, saying that when There is Hope advertised for volunteer teachers at its vocational training centre, she jumped right in. Berthilde joined the centre as a tailoring teacher and got the best of both worlds.
“I’m achieving two important things.” She explained. “First I train my fellow refugees in skills that can empower them and secondly I get to give back to Malawi by training locals too. It’s my way of showing appreciation to Malawi for hosting me.” One of the best things she likes about teaching at the centre, she disclosed, is that it is a community where refugees and Malawians mingle freely.
“I am a refugee but here nobody judges me. We interact like one big happy family” Among her first graduates, three have opened their own tailoring shops. Berthilde confirmed that this is one of her proud moments since it implies that she is helping bring positive transformation.
She explained that she wants to be recognized as an individual who is working to improve the lives of vulnerable communities. To some people, refugees are seen as parasitic – always begging for alms and dependent on food aid.
“Not me.” Berthilde observed. “My vision is to make a big difference.
The above picture shows Berthilde (in headcloth) helping a student in her class.