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

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

'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.

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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.

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'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.

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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."

The problems facing the Congolese refugees are daunting, and Mr. Ntirenganya ticked them off one-by-one: nutrition, medical attention, child safety, education, employment, over-crowding.

Daunting, but not, as it turns out, insurmountable.

Rwanda's impressive turnaround

The turmoil in eastern Congo is fuelled by mineral riches, including gold and coltan, a rare ingredient used in cellphones. (Which is to say, to blood diamonds and blood oil, we can now add the consumer demand for faster cellphones to the mix.)

But the roots of the conflict run much deeper.

Rwanda's 1994 genocide against Tutsis, which left upward of a million people dead, didn't end when the despotic regime responsible was toppled.

The Hutu Power extremists behind the genocide fled en masse into Congo, regrouping as the Orwellian-named Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (usually given with its French acronym, FDLR).

To put that into perspective, imagine for a moment that the Nazi party hadn't been destroyed, but had retreated and reformed in the forests across the border from Germany.

Rwanda, meanwhile, has reinvented itself as "the Singapore of Africa," a stable, economically sound, autocratic democracy dominated by a single party. (In the recent September, 2013, parliamentary elections, the ruling RPF party won 40 of the 53 seats.)

Rwanda's turnaround from genocidal slaughterhouse to a pro-business, socially progressive state, has been hailed – and rightly so – as a miracle.

Rwanda's parliament boasts the highest number of women elected to any national assembly in the world – the only parliament where women form the majority, in fact – and the nation's proactive social programs have won awards from the United Nations.

Transparency International ranks Rwanda as the least corrupt nation in Africa, and the World Bank places Rwanda in the top ten countries in the world in which to start a new business.

Over three weeks of crisscrossing the country, I found it to be safe, clean and on the move – tourism is booming with eco-treks to the mountain gorillas made famous by Dian Fossey a big draw.

But the shadow of the genocide still casts a pall across the country almost 20 years after the fact. The ominous presence of the FDLR, just across the border, was countered by M23, a breakaway group of Tutsi-Congolese soldiers named for the March 23, 2009, peace accord which they signed with the Congolese government, and which has yet to be implemented.

The UN and Congolese government accused Rwanda of supporting the M23 to, in effect, continue the fight against the genocidaires by proxy. Rwanda has denied these accusations and, just as tartly, asked why Congo and the UN haven't been pursuing the genocidal ideologues of the FDLR with the same enthusiasm.

Amid the sabre-rattling and brinkmanship, the ordinary people in North Kivu were caught, quite literally, in the crossfire. Even though the shooting has stopped for the moment, with the M23 rebels routed, the Tutsi refugees are still in danger if they dared to return with the FDLR still at large.

How the camp works

Elsewhere, schooling and medical care would be provided inside the camp, with residents limited both in travelling and seeking employment beyond it. Here they can come and go as they wish, look for outside employment – are encouraged to do so, in fact – and are allowed to sell or bargain whatever supplies they accumulate as they see fit.

A small market economy has already taken shape, and on the walk in we passed a stall set up by some of the more enterprising residents to sell extra soap, sweets, packets of laundry powder. Mr. Saifi stopped to buy some candy and the price immediately jumped 400 per cent. He laughed and haggled the markup down to a mere 300 per cent. A small victory, for both sides.

Children jostled in, smiling, laughing, shrieking when I greeted them in Kinyarwandan. (I know all of five phrases in their unreasonably complex language: Hello, How are you?, I am fine, Hey white guy! and Thank you.)

"Usually, schools for refugees are built inside a camp," Mr. Saifi noted, "but here we have placed them outside the camp, in the Rwandan school system itself and following the Rwandan school curriculum."

I asked how that schools in question have managed to cope with the influx.

"We expanded the existing schools in the area," he explained. "There are 5,000 refugee children from Kigeme Camp attending school, and we built 62 new classrooms to accommodate them. We provide them with school uniforms and shoes, and salaries for the extra teachers. This way, the local education system benefits from the camp's presence."

And medical care?

"We set up a small clinic in the camp for basic health issues. For anything else, we refer them to the local Rwandan health centre and district hospital."

The UNHCR has helped recruit and train extra health workers as well. "The hospital itself is very close. It's walking distance from the camp."

This is no gulag; there is no desire to "punish" people for being refugees. In many ways, the camp is now part of the community.

And rather than seeing the refugees as a drain, this local community – in one of the poorest regions in Rwanda – sees real, tangible benefits in hosting the camp.

"It's working very well," Mr. Saifi said.

Of course, none of this would be possible without the support of Mr. Ntirenganya's government. Told that Canada has stripped medical coverage for refugee claimants, he was taken aback: A wealthy country denies something that Rwanda, still pulling itself out of poverty, provides?

Being diplomatic, he said nothing.

Another challenge facing the refugees is employment.

"There are people with master's degrees in the camps who can't find work," Mr. Ntirenganya explained.

"So we are talking to the local business community to see how these educated people can use their training and abilities, instead of wasting their talents.

"If one person in the camps gets a job, five families benefit."

Suiting up for soccer

As the day neared its end, Jean-Claude lugged out a duffle bag filled with new soccer uniforms and equipment courtesy of Calgary's Foothills Soccer Club, and the boys and girls in the camp quickly suited up.

"Being a refugee is not a crime," Jean-Claude reminded the children. "And having less doesn't make you a lesser person. You have the chance to go to school, and working hard will give you power and a voice. Who knows, there could be a future president among you – or a future Messi!"

The reference to the Barcelona soccer star drew a cheer from the kids, and I went over to speak with two of the players: a 16-year-old striker named Steven Nshizirungu and a goalkeeper named Eric Iradukunda.

When I asked the crowd who their best female player was, the response was unanimous. A solid-looking 16-year-old girl named Appoline Nyiramugisha was pushed to the front, looking embarrassed and proud.

She was a striker and by all accounts, formidable.

"Could you score on Eric?" I asked. "On a penalty shot?"

She looked him over, slowly, delivered a withering one-word assessment. "Certainly."

This brought cheers from the girls and protests from the boys, and when I asked Appoline who her role model was, which women's player she looked up to, she didn't understand the question. She was puzzled by it, in fact.

Appoline didn't know there was such a thing as professional women soccer players.

When I told her there most certainly was and that, if she kept at it, she could make a living at soccer when she got older, her smile looked like it was lit from within. (If, in the future, a Congolese player named Appoline is tearing up the pro women's soccer pitch you will know where she got her start.)

I told her, "The best women's soccer player in the world is a Canadian. Her name is Christine Sinclair, and she's a striker like you. So when people ask you, 'Who do you play like?' you tell them 'I play like Christine Sinclair.'"

She practised the name, said it aloud several times. Smiled.

'They want to go home'

Jean-Claude and I said our goodbyes to the kids and then met up with Mr. Saifi.

The younger children had grown bolder, with some of the more brazen braving a hurried burst of English, "Hello how are you I am fine!" thrown my way before running off to squeals of congratulations from their friends.

Looking back at the hills above us, Mr. Saifi said: "Good things are happening in this country."

But Kigeme is still a camp and these are still refugees. "The real solution," Mr. Ntirenganya said, "is political." The turmoil in the Congo needs to be resolved.

"Remember," he added, "these refugees are civilians. They had homes, farms, cattle. They were established. What do they need, more than anything? What do they want, more than anything? They want to go home."

Will Ferguson is the author of 419, which won the Scotiabank Giller Prize.

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