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Ripe for integration

“You know I used to be scared of Malawians,” he said and let out a big bright grin. It is hard to tell that behind that wide smile once hid a face overshadowed by the trauma that is birthed courtesy of being a refugee. “I am serious. I thought Malawians are difficult. I think it was partly because of the language barrier between us refugees and Malawians.” He continued, his smile slowly fading into a thoughtful face as his lips briefly flattened up into a straight line. He stayed muted for a few seconds, gazing into the roof of his small house as if searching for a lost symbol then glanced up again…

“That was a long time ago. Now I look at Malawians and it’s interesting how I have grown to like them. I treat them as my brothers and sisters now…”

Celestine, that is the young man’s name, is one of the 50,000 plus refugees living in Dzaleka Refugee Camp in Central Malawi. He is originally from DR Congo. Celestine is also among more than 800 people that we have trained through our vocational training programme and one of the many refugees that we graduated in Welding. However, Celestine’s story is unique because apart from obtaining a vocational qualification in welding, he got something else he never anticipated.

As any other new refugee in Dzaleka, Celestine did not understand anything about Malawians, their culture and their way of life, when he first arrived in the camp in 2016. Worse, because of limited movement, he had zero interaction with the host community in Dzaleka and that further perpetrated his misunderstanding of the community. This is not a strange occurrence and the same can be said of some Malawians, around Dzaleka and outside, who harbour misconceptions about refugees due to lack of interaction with this community of displaced people. In fact, this is one of the myriads of reasons that have bred the relationship gap between refugees and the host communities in Malawi.

Celestine’s views were about to get a facelift. In 2018, he found a place in our vocational training programme to study Fabrication and Welding. This would also be Celestine’s first time to step outside the camp. What drove Celestine to join our vocational skills training is the miserable life of abject poverty that he was going through in the camp. He wanted a way out of the sad life of no job, zero income and overdependence on friends for survival. It is a life that Celestine was not familiar with because back in DR Congo he was a qualified mechanical engineer with a full-time job.

There is something else that pushed Celestine to opt for vocational training – trauma.

“Life as a refugee changes you and all the time, you’re thinking about the trauma that you’re going through… you’re always thinking too much. That’s what was happening to me. I needed to get out of the camp and meet normal people,” Celestine revealed, adding that he realized that it was also important that he kept himself busy with school in order to forget the suffering that he was experiencing in the camp.

Celestine found the healing that he was looking for and more. Just a few weeks into joining the vocational training, Celestine explained, he felt his life normalizing. He said that interacting with people outside the camp helped him to ‘get back to his senses’. It also helped him to understand the host community better and write off the misconceptions that he had about Malawians. He also came to realize that the culture and tradition of the host community shared striking similarities with his culture back in DR Congo.

That was an added bonus to the Welding skills that Celestine acquired from our vocational training programme. Celestine graduated in 2018 with a certificate issued by Malawi’s TEVET Authority. This is a qualification that is highly recognized in the southern region of Africa. Celestine believes that the qualification and the new skill that he has attained is his doorway to retaking his dignity. With some financial resources from a few of his close relatives, he has already bought some welding machinery to open a micro-business in welding. He is very sure that the market is there.

“You can see now that the refugee camp is slowly changing,” he said “take a look around and you’ll see that people are switching from wooden doors, for example, to steel doors. Even the window frames in many houses here are made from steel. This means that there is a big demand for welders to make those items.”

….and Celestine already has a few innovative ideas for the welding products he will start making.

As Malawi progresses towards the implementation of the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF), the need to prepare the host community for refugee integration cannot be overstated. Now more than ever, these two communities, which have for a long time been on the opposite ends of the pole, need to work together as the country approaches the CRRF.