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“Better than the average refugee”

“I am glad that Kibebe employed me,” that is how Thierry concluded our chat.

There was a sparkle of self-confidence in his eyes when he said those words. Confidence because, as he had told me earlier in the conversation, he had recovered the self-esteem that he had lost when he became a refugee. Thierry may not be working a big job with a massive pay and lots of benefits but the small job he has through Kibebe is important because it helps him buy necessities like soap, sugar and meals, which are needed to pull his family through tough times.

To an individual surviving in a refugee camp, that is something which is not taken for granted.

“Life as a refugee is hard but it is even harder if you don’t know where you’ll get your meal tomorrow,” Thierry admitted while looking at me with a pained smile. He told me that he is at least better than the average refugee who sits at home without any form of employment. The job with Kibebe, he said, gives him peace of mind since he has a guaranteed source of money.

Before we even had this interesting conversation about Thierry’s work with Kibebe, I had the privilege of listening to his captivating story prior to his encounter with Kibebe. Like any refugee, insecurities forced Thierry and part of his family to leave their home country of Burundi. And like the story of every new arrival in Dzaleka Refugee Camp –where Thierry currently stays –Thierry experienced despair. He was the youngest male member of the family but he found himself with the responsibility of toiling to support his older brother to provide for the family.

He told me how he used to mould mud bricks, locally known as zidina in Chichewa, for sale. It is not an experience he likes to reminisce because the task of moulding the bricks required long hours in mud and short hours of sleep. The dreaded part was finding a market for the bricks. Thierry told me that there are hundreds of people who are into the same business and that was a huge setback. He could stay for months without finding a customer and when he did get a customer, the money was miserable.

“Sometimes, I did laundry at random households to keep going,” Thierry said to me. Meanwhile, his older brother contributed his part by painting signposts or houses.

Years later when Thierry had children, the problems trickled down to the kids and this time the inability to fully provide for them, coupled with the poor conditions in Dzaleka camp, affected their health. The health centre within the Camp has a severe shortage of drugs and fails to accommodate the 40 thousand plus refugees living there including locals from surrounding communities. So, Thierry was often referred to the District hospital about 12 kilometres away. By car, it is approximately a 10-minute drive but on foot, it takes roughly 2 hours to get there.

Thierry walked.

Not because he chose to but he could not afford public transport. I listened with keen attention as, with sad recollection in his brown eyes, he told me that he would carry his child on his back and walk for miles in the scorching sun to get to the hospital. I took a moment to imagine someone walking for 2 hours, the weight of a fully grown child on his back. That journey could tire even a beast of burden. As if that is not enough, Thierry’s younger sister suffers from asthma and she requires special medication but Thierry and his elder brother could not manage to pay for her drugs.

This life became a hard reality for Thierry.

Some sad stories have a happy ending and Thierry discovered the twist towards that happiness through our vocational training. He joined tailoring in our programme after being encouraged by a friend. A few months later, he graduated as a certified tailor. Soon his neighbours and other fellow refugees started coming to him to have their old clothes patched or new clothes made. Little by little, he was building a new source of income that he had so desperately wished for.

“I got a little something from the clothes I made and I used that to buy meals for the family,” Thierry said. I could tell from his expression that this was a game-changer to him –albeit minor. Actually, Thierry said that these little changes in his life were significant.

Several months later, Kibebe was hiring. Thierry applied for a spot. He was successful and became one of Kibebe’s artisans.

He now had a job.

As an artisan, Thierry earns an income that is sustaining his living conditions. When his children are sick, he no longer walks to the hospital carrying them on his back. He can easily afford bus fare to get there. He can also ably purchase medications if it comes to that.

But that is not the only reward Thierry is reaping from working with Kibebe. He explained that his experience with Kibebe has boosted his confidence since he is involved in creating internationally recognized products. He said that whenever he sees someone carrying a Kibebe branded product, he feels proud of his contribution to the making of the item.

“I am glad that Kibebe employed me,” Thierry smiled widely as we shook hands to conclude our conversation.