Refugee children: Jehovanise, Rebecca and Diane’s stories

Updated Aug 05, 2020

Childhood under assault

Part 5: Jehovanise, Rebecca and Diane, Burundi

Girls and boys deserve to grow up free from abuse and exploitation. But in the world’s most dangerous places, childhood is frequently the first casualty. Here is the story of Jehovanise, Rebecca and Diane, the fifth in our 10-part series. 

“My first idea is to go to school.”

The three teenage girls were home from the refugee camp.

They smiled in the bright Burundian sunshine, eagerly looking about them. Their names were Jehovanise, Rebecca and Diane. And they were very happy to be back.

They might have been Canadian teens stepping off the school bus. Or coming in the door after a summer as camp counsellors. Excited to get back to routine. Keen to start school in September.  

“My first idea is to go back to school,” said 16-year-old Jehovanise, with all the purpose of a Canadian girl filling out her daytimer. “After that, I want to help my family with agriculture, so we can have enough food.” 

a young black girl holds a baby and they are laughingJehovanise (right with her baby brother Niyonyishu), is determined to attend school again in Burundi. Photo: Mark Nonkes

School before food security. Learning before eating. It gives a sense of how hungry children are to continue building their own lives, even when conflict destroys their homes, plans and routines.   

So quickly were the girls moving, so eager to get on with the next thing, that World Vision staff learned only bits of their stories. One thing was clear, though: despite the challenges ahead, they were optimistic about their futures in Burundi.

“Our house was destroyed after we left,” said 15-year-old Rebecca, relaying news she and her family had received while away. “It will take time for us to build a new one. We will live with relatives in the meantime. I’ll help grow beans and rice.” 

These children were among 1,300 Burundians coming home in a wave. World Vision was there to meet them, providing basic cash allowances so families could get started. 

a black woman holds a small child's hand and walks carrying a black plastic bag. A large group of people is behind them.. Families carried all they had in the world in a few sacks. Photo: Mark Nonkes

Would their lives be different this time around? Perhaps. Yet even Canadian families returning to communities destroyed by floods or forest fires receive government and social support. This is far less common in fragile regions of the world. Plus, most Canadian children have had the benefit of safe, stable childhoods. Emergencies are aberrations – not the norm.

But in Burundi, emergencies, even atrocities, have clouded childhoods for generations. Many of today’s parents and grandparents lived through the genocides of 1972 or 1993. Some endured both. And the country’s state of ongoing crisis eroded basic systems like education and healthcare. The economy continues in shambles. Most livelihoods are subsistence at best. 

Lives shaped by conflict 

It was 2015 when the three girls fled Burundi for Tanzania. Tensions in Burundi had been rising for months. The country’s president had announced plans to run for a controversial third term. An attempted military coup had been thwarted. Protests had raged for months – to be brutally put down. 

In the end, the violent clashes forced hundreds of thousands of people from their homes and across national borders in search of safety. Families grabbed what they could carry and made for the wilderness.

“We left home in the day and walked until night,” Jehovanise remembered of that time. “We found somewhere in the grass to sleep. We were scared, fearing criminals might come in the night and hurt us. On the next morning, we arrived at the refugee camp in Tanzania.” 

She didn’t share the events leading to their flight. But we know that no family leaves lightly. For parents to abandon homes, businesses and possessions they’ve worked for all their lives, the situation must be deadly.  

All things considered, why return at all? Because hope stays alive on the most meagre of diets. And because life as refugees had worn them to the bone. 

Surviving life at camp 

To survive in the Tanzanian refugee camp, said 15-year-old Diane, her parents had to regularly borrow money from people running small business inside the camp. Repayment was possible only by selling off some of the family’s food ration.

 a crowd gathers inside an arena. The arena is filled with tents made of blue tarpaulins.When camps are crowded and budgets tight, food rations are often cut. Photo: Margaret Jephson

“But then, the camp cut the food ration in half,” she remembered. “And food that was supposed to last us for two weeks now had to stretch for an entire month.”

Such reduced rations aren’t uncommon for Burundian refugees. The UNHCR named the Burundi refugee crisis as the lowest-funded of any situation in the world. Only 28 per cent of funds needed to adequately care for families has been received. 

Heartbreaking losses 

For Diane, Rebecca and Jehovanise, life at the camp brought the kind of heartbreak reserved just for females. When budgets are tight, camps focus on keeping people alive. Many other things go by the board. 

During their monthly menstrual cycles, the girls had no sanitary supplies, changes of clothes or water for laundry. Moving around meant soiling the only clothing they had.

“Sometimes we missed camp school for four days because of this,” said Jehovanise. “We had to use pieces of cloth we found. After using them, we had no choice but to search the camp for other pieces.”  

It may seem trivial—until you try living it. Imagine picking through the squalor of an overcrowded refugee camp, seeking dirty rags for your most intimate self-care. 

Yet if you’re not successful, that’s more school days lost. And this can be heartbreaking. Especially given the patchwork nature of education for kids growing up in turbulent regions like Burundi. Every single day at school is precious. 

Living on hope 
More than a thousand people packed up and trekked back to Burundi in the last months of 2017. Struggles in the camp had coincided with news of Burundi’s improved security. Hopes lifted, possessions were packed, and children prepared for the journey. It was time to go home.  

“After we realized life was becoming harder in the camp, my family decided to come home,” says Rebecca. “I feel happy to be back here.”
A black woman stands stands in a crowd of refugees, with her possessions wrapped in cloth at her feet.
Returnees were met by World Vision staff, then headed onward, rebuilding allowances in hand. Photo: Mark Nonkes

Rebecca, Diane and Jehovanaise came home to Burundi with such excitement, such plans, such determination to make a new start. 

Yet, since their return, the country’s economic and political climate has remained turbulent. Theirs is one of the poorest country in the world—with three-quarters of people living below the poverty line.

Burundi needs young people like these three girls. To persist with their educations, despite the odds. To rebuild homes, run farms and start businesses. To find their voices, share their views and assume positions of leadership.

To create a vastly different future for Burundian children to come.  Burundi needs them and our world needs them. 

a black baby looks into the distance from the back of caregiver. His sister looks at him in the background.
Education is the key to a brighter future for Burundi’s children. Photo: Mark Nonkes

Global poverty is in retreat but has become more concentrated in the world’s darkest places. Over the next decade, more than 80 per cent of the world’s poorest children and families will live in the most dangerous places where lives and futures are threatened by conflict and disaster. Join the movement and take action against injustice. Learn how you can help.

Read the next story in the series.

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