Hidden in Plain Sight: Tanzania’s Refugee Response

Where are the Refugees?

We didn’t get to visit any refugee camps in Tanzania.  This is because I had erroneously thought there weren’t any camps in Tanzania.  The Prime Minister has banned refugees from entering earlier this year, and I read this outdated article  (or something like it) which implied there were only a few thousand refugees hiding in the capital city.  One third of ELCA synods partner with a sister synod in Tanzania, meaning that dozens of my friends and colleagues have visited there – but none of them could tell me anything about Tanzania refugee camps.

God often speaks to me through my mistakes.

Through the wonder of networking and emails, I had scheduled two meetings with refugee workers in the large capital city of Dar es Salaam (where I thought most of the refugees lived). In speaking with them, I learned that there are several refugee camps in Tanzania, mainly along the border of Burundi and Rwanda:

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In 2014, the newly elected government was working to close most of the camps, and was trying to get paperwork for camp residents – many which had been in country since either the early 70s (Burundi revolution) or early 90s (Rwanda genocide).  They had just about managed that… when Burundi had another crisis.

Now, there are almost 1 million refugees in the camps in Tanzania, almost all of which arrived in 2015.  Those folks have limited access to clean water, which means hydration and sanitation are difficult.  The UN is only providing 62% rations this year, meaning most of the people are starving.  And, to make matters even worse, the Tanzanian government often uses outdated figures to convince other countries (or, apparently, people like me), that there isn’t a refugee problem any more.

Christian Agencies fill the Gap

Thanks be to God, at least 2 great agencies are working to provide dignity, sustainable solutions, and self-governance to the refugees of Tanzania.

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Asylum Access is in a small office building, with a sign so hidden we almost missed our meeting.  This international aid organization, based out of California, has offices in Latin America, Thailand, and Tanzania, with plans to expand to Syria soon.  They mainly provide legal assistance to refugees and asylees within Tanzania.  They also advocate in the Human Rights commission and Tanzanian government, encourage Tanzanian businesses to hire refugees and schools to admit refugee children.  In many ways, their work mirrors that of Justice for our Neighbors and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, both faves of mine in the US.

We got to meet with Nondo.

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Nondo was a Congolese Refugee, arriving in a Tanzanian camp in the 90s.  Because of charitable organizations, he was able to attend school in the camp.  But, due to Tanzania’s restrictive refugee policies, he wasn’t allowed to leave the camp to work or attend university.  Thankfully, Asylum Access helped him win scholarships to university for undergraduate and graduate studies, as well as a legal permit to work in Tanzania as an asylee, and now he works as a social worker and legal advocate of sorts for Asylum Access.  His presence alone speaks volumes about the work they’re doing, but he also gives hope to dozens of people he personally helps each year.

Tanganyika Christian Refugee Services has been working in Tanzania before it was even a country!  (That’s why it has the name “tanganyika” – which was the country’s name before it incorporated the Island of Zanzibar as part of its borders and changed its name to “tanzania”).  This amazing organization is part of the ACT alliance and Lutheran World Federation, and it works with refugees in at least 6 camps, as well as asylum seekers in cities like Dar es Salaam.  They have a large office building in the capital, where many of their nearly 600 employees work. In the camps, they employ hundreds of refugees.

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We got to meet with several employees who see firsthand the impact of ELCA support and US donations.  Because of American contributions through Church World Service and Lutheran World Relief, TCRS has built 24 wells in camps, and runs hygiene workshops, distributing soap to prevent disease.  Girls and women receive sanitary products (often reusable ones, sewn by women’s groups in the states), families receive quilts, and students receive school supplies.  These are directly from the donations of US churches, groups, and individuals.

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These directors took time out of their day to meet with me.  I am thrilled, and humbled.  I didn’t personally make any quilts or pack any kits last year. My congregation(s) haven’t promised any financial support for next year.  Still, they know how important it is to say thank you.  Maybe one of you, dear readers, has made a contribution or donation.  Maybe one of you will.  Now that I’ve seen their impact firsthand, I want to ensure that I’m contributing in the future.

Now my dream – to encourage, motivate, inspire, etc. the ELCA groups and individuals who visit Tanzania each year to visit with the refugees and refugee workers.  I think that it’s important for us to know how important our prayers and support and contributions are to the folks who receive them and rely on them.  It’s also vitally important to recognize our brothers and sisters in Africa who are called to such an important ministry.  Do you have ideas, dear readers?  How can we make great connections going forward?  Let me know your ideas!

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