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Social media helps mend African refugees’ broken social fabric

February 03rd, 2020
topic:Refugees and Asylum
by:Cyril Zenda
located in:Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Kenya, Burundi
tags:Africa, human rights, migration, refugees

For 15 years Danis (36) a Burundian refugee in Zimbabwe never made any contact with any member of his family. In fact as far as he was concerned, there was no longer any family to contact.

He was very sure that he was the only member of his family lucky enough to survive the brutal civil war that rocked the tiny East African country, having fled – when opportunity presented itself – first to Tanzania, before moving to Zimbabwe, where the increased distance made him feel safer.

For him, being out of touch was safer physically and psychologically. Authorities back home in Burundi and in neighbouring Rwanda are notorious for allegedly sending hitmen abroad to kill political opponents that they feel pose a threat to their rule. He also preferred to die without suffering the psychological trauma of many of his fellow countrymen who have to deal with the agony of knowing that their family members perished in the civil war. It was better to avoid confirmation of his worst fears.

All this changed when one day in 2016, when upon logging on to Facebook, he found a friend request from a childhood friend and a message asking about him.

“After days of asking him test questions, I was sure it was him”, Danis explained to FairPlanet at Tongogara Refugee Camp, some 420 km south east of Harare. “It is a tricky game. You don't just share anything with people who approach you in this camp or on the social media.”

After positive identification, a game of hide and seek started, sharing bits and pieces of information, while also hiding as much as strategically necessary; the regime back home sometimes uses one’s own relatives and friends to track them down for close monitoring and possible assassination.

He got to know that the friend was also a refugee in Kenya, but kept avoiding asking or answering most personal questions that could have quickly confirmed his fears about his family. When confidence grew, they exchanged phone numbers.

“One day I received a call from a number starting with +254, which is the code for Kenya. I ignored it twice, but when the caller persisted, I then decided just to answer it... It was my friend who quickly told me that someone wanted to talk to me… I could not believe that it when I heard my father’s voice on the line. All I could do was cry while he was also crying from the other end. My mother also took the phone from my crying father and also started crying on the phone!”

It took Danis days for the reality that his parents and all his siblings – who from their end had been fully convinced that he was long dead – had also survived the civil war, although they were also refugees in Kenya. The war separated them when he was a 17-year-old schoolboy.

“I am still waiting to meet them,” a sorrowful Danis said. “This has been the longest three years of my life, but there is nothing I can do about it because I don’t have money and they also don’t have it. All we do is phone each other regularly.”

In this refugee camp there are many inmates like Danis with different stories – both good and bad – of how the advent of the social media has changed their lives. Tongogara camp is home to more than 12,000 refugees from about half-a-dozen African countries.

“All my four children were born here but they now know some of their relatives, both paternal and maternal, who are back home or in other countries”, said Annastasie, a 35-year-old refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Henri (42) from Rwanda, says social media will remain the only link that some of them who don’t see any prospects of returning home, will continue to have with their homelands.

“It has allowed home to follow us, something that was unimaginable over a decade when we arrived here”, he said.

Jean Pierre (46), another Burundian refugee used the social media to hunt for a wife, with luck leading him to Devine, a woman from his country who was a refugee in Rwanda. The two got married in 2017 and are now living in Harare where they run a retail and transport business.

“I don't know what would have become of us had it not been for the social media” Jean Pierre told FairPlanet. He wondered aloud how many of those who have been unfortunate to be refugees in the past managed to trace, as well as keep in touch with, relatives and friends.

According to research, social media has become a vital bridge linking displaced people around the world. Social media has become an indispensable source of information for today’s refugees. They often access social media and other types of online information through smartphones. These social media are increasingly popular channels of information on which refugees and other migrants base their decisions on whether to migrate and the destinations to settle. Social media offers a relatively cheap and easily accessible means of communication for refugees. 

“Without it (social media) how would I be able to know anything about my home country when I was born here?” said Bintu, a 21-year-old guitarist who entertains the forlorn Congolese community with music from back home.

Article written by:
CZ Photo
Cyril Zenda
Author
Zimbabwe Rwanda Kenya Burundi
DSCN4163
Danis
Danis
A Burundian refugee in Zimbabwe never made any contact with any member of his family.
All this changed when one day in 2016, when upon logging on to Facebook, he found a friend request from a childhood friend and a message asking about him.
I could not believe that it when I heard my father’s voice on the line. All I could do was cry while he was also crying from the other end.