"No one chooses to be a refugee"
Barthelemy is a Burundian refugee and staff member with Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in Nduta camp, northwestern Tanzania, where MSF is the sole healthcare provider for 75,000 refugees. As a refugee himself, Barthelemy embarked on an extraordinary journey to reach safety and begin a new life with his family in Tanzania. This is his story.
When I think of my hometown, I remember warm days, cycling on the sunburnt tarmac by the golden shore of Lake Tanganyika, where hippos peek from the surface and children play in the water at sunset. I remember the bright-coloured garments of friends gathering by the blue-and-white church and the echo of the pastor’s voice from the sunlit pulpit. I remember the day I graduated from university: my girlfriend's proud face, the cracks in her cheeks, and I remember I was happy.
But it’s painful for me to remember the day I left it all behind in 2015. The previous days were scattered with gunfire and explosions, and those sad memories never leave my mind. Things in my country were changing. One evening, two men with guns broke into my home and forced me down onto my stomach, threatening to shoot me as they stole my possessions. After that, the bitter taste of fear lingered at the back of my throat and a nauseating tide in my stomach never left me, as violence erupted around my home every day.
I knew I had to leave, though I didn’t want to desert my work, my family, my church and my home. As I kissed my girlfriend goodbye, I felt warm and wet tears on her eyelashes. “I don’t know where I’m going, but I will write to you when I get there,” I promised her.
I set off on my bicycle, carrying a backpack with some clothes, my bible, a mobile phone and about US$80 in my pocket. I cycled for hours, hiding behind buildings and trees when I heard gunfire. I rode through bustling towns where fighting chimed like church bells on the hour; I cycled up through the fresh, clear air of mountain tops and hitched rides on trucks down winding village roads lined with eucalyptus trees.
After five days of cycling and sleeping in local villages, I crossed the Tanzanian border. My clothes were soaking wet and my face sagged with fatigue. This is where my life as a refugee began…
At first I stayed with around 20 men in a hall in a transit refugee centre near the border. We slept on mats on the hard mud floor and ate maize diluted with water as there wasn’t enough to go around. I sang for the guys, and together we prayed that we would find shelter, water and safety. After a week, I was transferred by the UN to Nyarugusu camp, home to some 150,000 refugees from Burundi and Democratic Republic of Congo.
When I arrived in the camp the rain fell relentlessly and all I could see was a sea of sludgy mud scattered with white plastic sheeting held up by rusty poles. I shared my tent with six other men, sleeping on a mat on the hard floor, fully clothed and shivering from the damp. The rain leaked through the plastic sheeting, and soon there were lice everywhere: in my hair, in my clothes, in the bedding.
I was lonesome at first, but the other men around me gave me energy. We collected firewood and sat around the flames at night, cooking porridge and sharing stories about our hometowns and families. I realised I wasn’t alone and that many of my brothers here had suffered much more than me. We had each other and we stuck together—not as refugees, but as human beings.
After two and a half months, I was transferred to a different refugee camp called Nduta in the northwest of Tanzania. I went from sleeping under plastic sheeting to living in a tent, to eventually building my own home from dry wood and mud. Together with the members of the local Christian congregation, we also built a new church for the camp.
The entrance to the mental health office at the MSF hospital in Nduta refugee camp, Tanzania. © Pierre-Yves Bernard
I soon got a job with medical organisation MSF. At MSF, I work with doctors, nurses and engineers from all over the world, including Tanzanians, and I feel a great sense of belonging. We are the only health service in the camp and we provide lifesaving treatment for malaria, measles, diabetes and dozens of other life-threatening problems that people are exposed to in the camp.
In June 2016, my girlfriend left Burundi to embark on the same journey and we were finally reunited in Nduta refugee camp. After a year of separation, fearing for each other’s lives, we were married in the church in the camp, and today we have a baby boy named GoodLuck Tena.
I have lived as a refugee for five years in Tanzania and all I ask is: please, don’t judge us because we are refugees. We are not wicked nor evil, we are humans just like you, living and feeling, with fears and dreams, as any man. What happened to us can happen to anyone on earth. No one chooses to be a refugee.
I hope that one day I will be able to return to my motherland, to a safe place. I miss my church and our colourful congregation and I miss my family. One day, I will build my own home on the land I own there, and once more I will cycle along the shoreline of Lake Tanganyika at sunset, with my son and wife beside me.