‘I am a Refugee'

“We don’t think life can be more bad than here in Kenya right now…. we wish this to end soon,” says Joyce a 19-year-old Congolese refugee and single mother of two. 

In 2009, at the age of 15, Joyce and her family fled the war in Umoja, Democratic Republic of Congo in search of safe land. One day they heard on the radio that there was safety in Kenya. After two months of traveling, they arrived in Nairobi, with only enough money for some food, transport and the clothes on their back. 

After registering with the United Nation’s High Commission for Refugees and the government’s Department of Refugee affairs, as refugees are required to do, she got connected with Refugepoint.  Refugepoint, a Kiva Trustee, is an NGO that supports vulnerable refugees with resettlement resources, including Kiva loans. They identify and protect refugees who have fallen through the cracks of humanitarian assistance and have no other options for survival, in particular women, children, and urban refugees. 

Urban refugees account for 1-3% of the population and are the most vulnerable, meaning they cannot afford rent or can only afford one meal a day.  According to the Kenya Bureau of statistics, there are 50,000 urban refugees in Nairobi.  Currently, RefugePoint is serving about 3,000-3,500 of those.

Joyce’s current frustration is justified. Recently the Kenyan government has responded to the rise in insecurity by arresting refugees and sending them to designated refugee camps, near the border of Somalia or simply deporting them. This government response of casting a wide net against terror, is called Operation Usalama, or Operation Peace. This ‘peaceful’ operation has disrupted the lives of refugees, immigrants and Kenyan citizens, who for years have built their lives peacefully in urban areas. Now, they are scared to leave their homes or continue their businesses.

This systematic injustice against refugees is causing damage, as refugees continue to be in need of more aid and resettlement assistance rather than persecution. Take Joyce’s case. She just got her second Kiva Zip loan but cannot pay it back. Here’s why.

A few weeks ago she went to Uganda to sell clothes and on the way back bought some flour, which she planned to sell at a profit in Kenya. Unfortunately, at the bus station in Nairobi, Joyce was stopped by the police. They accused her of using the flour to make illegal brews. After much questioning, and a bribe, Joyce was released but her flour confiscated. With no produce to continue her business and the fear of being arrested by the police, Joyce has gone back to casual jobs, washing clothes in the neighborhood to make ends meet. This is highly risky for a refugee woman as Joyce explained. The employers can choose not to pay, and in some cases, refugee women have also been raped. The violators know that the women will not report the crime to the police because as refugees they can be arrested and sent to camp immediately.

Joyce strikes me as hardworking, determined and gentle.  She is so soft spoken that at times it’s difficult to hear her, but she possesses a quiet confidence that comes across blaringly loud. Today, Joyce is also scared.  She fears going out because she can get arrested, but yet has to take the risk to survive. Joyce is the only one providing for her family.

One of the vulnerable communities Kiva continues to support in many locations is refugees. In Kenya, Kiva is actively searching for solutions to protect refugee borrowers. Pascalia Silia, Kiva Zip’s Relationship Manager, is suggesting that refugee borrowers with businesses are also shown some leniency by the government and are protected. “They have a loan that needs to be paid, and they can’t pay if they are unable to maintain their business. Kiva is taking a risk but we want to support them.”

Joseph Nyaga, the Livelihoods Manager for RefugePoint has a plea for Kiva lenders. “Have confidence in lending to refugees… they need your help now more than ever.”

Before leaving, I asked Joyce what her dream is and she says without any hesitation, “to get a chance to succeed and get resettled. I want to be in a country where I have security. My kids can go to school without a problem and even me…. I’m still young. I wish I could go back to school one day!” Here’s hoping Joyce and thousands of refugees like her are given a chance to achieve their dreams!
If you’d like to support refugees such as Joyce, please visit Kiva Zip.

About the author

Shikha Dubey

Shikha, a native of India, has called the Bay Area home since age 12, but considers herself a Global Citizen at heart. Having traveled to 40+ countries, she has a mild obsession with travel, exploration and adventure. Through her journeys in the developed and developing world, Shikha has always come away with the same conclusion: we are all more similar than different, and what really differentiates us is opportunity, access, and infrastructure. If there was a way to change this, would we really be that different? Shikha graduated from U.C. Berkeley, with a B.A. in Psychology. She has worked both in the public and private sector, always with a connection to the underserved. Recently her passion to give back, coupled with her curiosity to find cross-cultural equalizers, led her to join Cisco’s Global Education Philanthropy group. Here, she experienced first-hand how access to quality education helps individuals from disadvantaged communities change their future and participate on a global stage. She sees a huge parallel between education and microfinance – both are empowering and sustainable change agents in breaking the cycle of poverty. Shikha is thrilled to serve as a Kiva Fellow in Kenya. She speaks Hindi and French and looks forward to learning Swahili.