Ask me to describe a refugee camp and I’ll start with the smell.
It’s the smell of far too many people living in far too small a space, without adequate sewage or opportunities to bathe. The smell is pungent and overwhelming. One whiff makes you want to run for the safety of your jeep, where you can roll up the windows, turn on the air conditioning, and receive a brief respite from a smell that’s so strong it makes you gag.
The smell speaks to the deplorable condition of life in a refugee camp – a place where people forced to flee their homeland for fear of their lives seek safety in a country that’s not their own.
I first visited a refugee camp in 2011 in western Rwanda. There, ~20,000 Congolese refugees live in Kiziba Refugee Camp. Many have done so for more than a decade. Though they can look across Lake Kivu and see their homeland, they know they cannot return there. To do so would mean being killed.
Despite this, refugees do not want our pity; They want our friendship. They are some of the most resilient and capable people I’ve ever had the privilege of meeting. From them, I’ve learned much, including the following six things.
1. Poverty doesn’t mean you’re incapable. Far too often, we stereotype the poor. We think those who are poor are lazy people unable to solve their own problems. In actuality, my time in Kiziba taught me the opposite. Poverty doesn’t mean you’re incapable; It simply means you you have little or no money, goods, or means of support. In Kiziba, I met people living in extreme poverty who are incredibly capable. I witnessed their creativity, in the form of tools made with rudimentary supplies in order to better their lives. I saw visionary leadership as young people identified problems and found out-of-the-box solutions to them.