KAMPALA, Uganda – Bella Nshimirimana fled Burundi alone in 2011. Her husband, an opposition party activist, had already escaped the country a year earlier after receiving death threats. Their children later followed him to Uganda.
The 28-year-old social worker was seven months pregnant when she reached Nakivale settlement in southwest Uganda, today home to about 36,000 Burundians, among other nationalities, after years of political instability in the country. In total, Uganda hosts 1.2 million refugees from 13 countries.
Nshimirimana was horrified to discover one of her husband’s tormentors at Nakivale. But she also met a Somali woman there – “She told me: ‘We are all refugees facing the same challenges,’” recalls Nshimirimana. “She said ‘Come, I have a business in Kampala, we can share things.’”
In Uganda’s chaotic capital, Nshimirimana struggled to communicate with nurses in French, Swahili or her native language during her daughter’s birth. Despite Uganda’s generous policies toward refugees, including free healthcare, Nshimirimana says refugees face discrimination from health providers. When her baby fell sick, a doctor at the hospital told her “you have to go back home.” Nshimirimana says: “From that day I decided to learn English so I could be the voice of the voiceless.”
Now, Nshimirimana speaks fluent English and the Ugandan dialect Luganda and she volunteers as a translator for refugees in health facilities. She is also working on a second degree in public health and hopes to work on preventable diseases. “The degree I am studying for is not for me, it is for my community,” she says.
Nshimirimana was named Uganda’s “Refugee Woman of the Year” on World Refugee Day – June 20 – the sixth annual award by the Finnish Refugee Council, U.N. refugee agency and Uganda’s Office of the Prime Minister. Nshimirimana plans to put some of the $800 prize money toward a community project.
She has since reunited with her family – when registering her baby’s birth certificate in Kampala, she found her husband and children applying for asylum – and lives with them in Uganda’s capital.
Refugees Deeply: Uganda has been described as the best place in the world to be a refugee. But is Kampala a good place to be a refugee?
Bella Nshimirimana: I cannot say that Kampala is a good place for refugees, but we don’t have a choice to be here. At least we have freedom of movement and you can run a little business. But it doesn’t mean that we are happy with the life that we have here. We are trying our best, however, to see that we can survive.
Refugees Deeply: What are some of the challenges of being a refugee in Kampala?
Nshimirimana: The biggest challenge is that secret services from Burundi are coming to Kampala to look for refugees here. There was a Burundian who was kidnapped last year, and even now we don’t know his whereabouts. It’s happening to others like Congolese, and in settlements also.
As urban refugees, we are not getting the attention that those in the settlements are getting. We are facing the challenge of getting a job. That’s hard here – sometimes even Ugandans don’t have jobs.
Education is another difficulty. We have children, but to educate them as refugees is very expensive. When I came to Kampala I was the one who had to get the means to educate my children. My husband was hiding because the secret service of Burundi was coming here to look for refugees. But I managed to get scholarships for my five children.
Refugees Deeply: You have also in particular highlighted the struggles refugees face when trying to access health services.
Nshimirimana: Yes. When we are seeking services from health facilities there is sometimes discrimination. Sometimes there are also not enough drugs. Refugees can become overwhelmed and have a lot of questions. Sometimes they don’t know English. That’s why my colleagues and I are volunteering as translators in health facilities. I volunteer with fellow Burundians, Congolese, Somalis and Rwandans.
Refugees Deeply: In 2013 you co-founded the Mirror Group, made up of refugees and Ugandans, who hold traditional dance performances in Kampala. Can you tell us about that?
Nshimirimana: Youth from the Burundian community were fearing to come out and say, “I’m Burundian.” Our culture is our identity, but we were losing our identity. We created this group so that through our cultural dance we can reclaim our identity. Most members are Burundian, but there’s also Rwandan, Congolese and Ugandans. We’re trying to promote a peaceful co-existence between refugees and Ugandans.
Refugees Deeply: The Burundian government has been calling for refugees to return home, claiming there’s peace in the country. Uganda says Burundians will not be expelled or forcefully repatriated. Do you think you’ll ever go home?
Nshimirimana: I’m not happy to be a refugee. Whenever I remember that I’m a refugee, I feel sad. I love my country, but because of the political instability in Burundi I don’t feel that I can go back.
Refugees Deeply: Finally, congratulations on your award. How do you feel?
Nshimirimana: I didn’t have any idea that I would win this award. I’m proud. I encourage other women that whatever we’re doing, let us give back to the community. The little that we have let us share it. Success doesn’t come without any challenge. I want to be a role model for other refugees.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.