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Congolese refugees stand awaiting food distribution at Kigeme refugee camp in Rwanda July 18, 2012. More than 35,000 people have sought refuge in Rwanda. (Alissa Everett/REUTERS)
Congolese refugees stand awaiting food distribution at Kigeme refugee camp in Rwanda July 18, 2012. More than 35,000 people have sought refuge in Rwanda. (Alissa Everett/REUTERS)

In Rwanda, a Canadian working for the UN helps to reinvent the refugee camp Add to ...

‘The goal is integration, not isolation.”

It was a bone-dry day in the hills of western Rwanda, and I was speaking with the head of the local United Nations field office – a fellow Canadian – about what makes the Kigeme refugee camp so different from others.

We were standing at the edge of one of the world’s great rainforests, deep in the humid heart of Africa, but the dry season had baked the gumbo roads to a rust-red powder.

Originally from Pakistan, now of Oakville, Ont., Urooj Saifi has been with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) for 22 years, starting in Iraq just after the first Gulf War, and then serving in such conflict-riven places as Afghanistan.

But nothing quite prepared him for Kigeme.

The camp is one of several set up in 2012 when fighting broke out, yet again, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Hundreds of thousands of people fled the violence in North Kivu province, more than 35,000 of them seeking refuge across the border in Rwanda.

Mr. Saifi arrived in the spring to confront a crush of humanity. “It was a shock for me, because of the congestion. This camp was designed to hold a maximum of 15,000 and we are already over that. There was very little space and everyone was living on top of each other.”

Eighteen months later, the residents should be packing to go home. The initial conflict has come to a halt now that Congolese troops and UN forces have defeated the rebels they accused of causing the problem.

But the region’s divided loyalties and complicated ethnic politics ensures the people in Kigeme won’t be leaving anytime soon.

In almost any other circumstances, their predicament would be a recipe for disaster but the camp is designed to keep that from happening.


‘Kigeme is meant to be a showcase’

I was there almost by chance, travelling in the Kivu region with Jean-Claude Munyezamu, a friend and community organizer from Calgary, who left Rwanda 20 years ago. We had been picking our way gingerly along the border, including a visit to the so-called no-man’s land between Congo and Rwanda. (Less foreboding than it sounds; the area was bustling with cross-border trade even as government shells were falling on rebel positions north of Goma.)

As we passed Kigeme Camp, we saw boys and girls playing soccer with homemade balls – strips of scrap plastic woven around inflated condoms. Jean-Claude had brought soccer uniforms and equipment to donate to schools in Rwanda, but when he saw so many kids playing with so little, he changed his mind and decided to give half of it to the refugee children at Kigeme.

As luck would have it, a childhood friend of Jean-Claude’s, Clementine Kayirangwa, was working as the administrative assistant for the camp. She put us in touch with Mr. Saifi and his Rwandan counterpart, camp manager Deo Ntirenganya, who has been on the scene almost from the start. Working together, Mr. Saifi and Mr. Ntirenganya oversaw the camp’s operations.

They invited us to see things first-hand.

There is no denying that Kigeme is congested. Most places with refugee camps, Mr. Saifi said, have “more space, a lot of flat land.” Rwanda, however, is the “Land of a Thousand Hills” – small, landlocked and mountainous with one of the highest population densities in Africa. Space is at such a premium that Kigeme is not one camp but two, perched on adjoining hilltops with a busy road running between.

Crowded, yes, but not in despair. “Kigeme is meant to be a showcase,” Mr. Saifi explained. A template for what could be, both in Rwanda and around the world.

Residents have full legal protection under the same constitution that governs Rwandans, and children born in the camp are given Rwandan birth certificates and citizenship. “The Kigeme camp, and the others in Rwanda, are joint ventures,” said Mr. Saifi, who had his wife visiting from Canada along with their daughter and some of her classmates from university in Scotland.

“The relationship between the UNHCR and [the national government in] Kigali is very close. Deo is my neighbour, so we don’t even need to pick up the phone, I can walk over. It works very well. We talk. We discuss problems. Look for solutions. The UN,” he reminded me, “has to be invited in. We are guests.”

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