Helping Burundian refugees through the skilful act of listening

تم النشر: 25 يونيو 2015 10:00 CET

By Caroline Haga, Finnish Red Cross

“There have been so many stories that have really touched our hearts,” says Zuleka Aiden, Tanzania Red Cross Society staff member, who has heard countless accounts of the Burundi refugees’ difficult journeys to safety.

Wearing a Red Cross vest over her long skirt, Zuleka Aiden meets us at the gates of the Nyarugusu refugee camp where she has been working long before the current Burundi refugees began arriving. She warmly welcomes us and instantly begins telling us about the fate of the refugees in her excellent English.

“We have over 42,000 refugees already. Yesterday alone we received 7,000 new occupants. We desperately need a new camp for them with schools and a hospital,” she stresses.

Zuleka Aiden, who has worked for the Red Cross for over a decade, tells us that during the first weeks in early May, new refugees had been coming in day and night. Everyone at the camp worked almost around the clock. Now there are less people coming, but still, there are tens of thousands to take care of within the camp. And many more refugees to listen to.  

Families separated

“I’ve heard that the beginning was a complete mess in Kagugna,” the mother of two utters angrily. “Families were separated, only the strongest made it to the ferries.”

She tells us about an old lady who lost her disabled daughter as she was pushed back in the throng and could not reach the ferry. The woman still has not found her. Another family got separated as the father, being a man, could board the boat carrying all of their belongings. The wife and children were promised that they could join at the latest the next day, but ended up having to stay in Kagunga for almost a week, without any food and belongings.

And the saddest one of them all about a family where the father had to leave ten days earlier and the mother falling fatally ill with cholera. “When we got there, the mother had already been gone for three days. We intervened and got the children on the next boat,” Zuleka Aiden irritatedly shaking her head at the memory. 

Staying optimistic

At the Nyarugusu camp, aid workers were a bit better prepared. “We had been receiving small numbers of refugees ever since February and when the amounts began increasing in late March, we knew that we had to prepare. But we really were not expecting this amount of people. Our original plan was for 15,000,” Aiden explains.

Despite the limited capacity, Aiden and her fellow Red Cross workers do their best at the camp’s medical centre, the cholera treatment centre, and among the refugees across the camp. She hopes that the situation will improve soon and that they can get proper structures in place to help as many as possible.

Away from her own family

At the camp, Zuleka Aiden’s main responsibility is managing the efforts to help families find their missing relatives, which are carried out under the auspices of the International Committee of the Red Cross. “We have already received lots of requests and we are expecting many more. At the moment, what we can do is to let the refugees call their family members who are still in Burundi and tell them that they are alright. The calls are supposed to be only 3 minutes, but we often let them talk for 5,” the compassionate wife and mother says.

At the same time, Zuleka Aiden’s own children back home in Kigoma miss their mother. She has not been able to visit them since the refugees started to arrive. While she is out saving lives, her husband looks after their daughters Fatma Aiyan, 10, and Asha Nura, 6. “They all say that they are fine but I’m not sure I believe them. I am planning to finally go and check up on them in a couple of days,” she laughs. 

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has launched an emergency appeal of  1 million Swiss francs to support the Tanzania Red Cross Society as it responds to this unfolding crisis. The appeal aims to assist 20,000 Burundian refugees through the provision of emergency health care, shelter, water and sanitation, and non-food items including basics such as blankets and buckets.