Raising her voice to be heard over the ceremonial sound of Burundi drums echoing in the courtyard, Gloria Mbirinde wants the record to show that although it may not seem it – not at first glance – she is an Australian through and through. In fact, the 59-year-old says, not only could we claim her as one of our own, she belongs to a community and business group known locally as ‘The Australian Women’ – a curious description for the ladies who’ve not yet been able to visit our fair land located some 12,630km away from the Kampala community centre where we lay our scene.
Admittedly there are elements to our chat that are not wholly unfamiliar: the dust clouds which swirl whenever movement breaks up the harsh midday stillness, for example, and the way the red, baked earth sizzles under our feet.
But it’s as Mbirinde begins sharing her personal story – a heartbreaking journey of fleeing her homeland of The Democratic Republic of the Congo and becoming a refugee in her host country of Uganda – that themes of mateship, community and having a fair go – become evident, making this as Australian a story as any.
Mbirinde has a different way of putting into context the work she and the other ‘Australian Women’ do in their adopted home however: “We just want to ensure that our years in exile are not wasted.”
The Refugee Women’s Craft Group
The ’we’ Mbirinde refers to is her tightknit group of friends, sisters and work colleagues that make up the Refugee Women’s Craft Group, a project that was established when a handful of refugee women came together at the Antonio Guterres Urban Refugee Community Centre and starting sharing their craft skills in order to provide urban refugee women with an opportunity to earn a regular income and rebuild their lives in a foreign land.
What began in 2014 with six women coming together to make keyrings, tablecloths and jewellery items has grown to around 36 (numbers fluctuate) – many of them the sole providers for their families after having fled conflict, violence, and in a majority of cases, trauma – working side-by-side in the community centre to both make and sell their product at a variety of spots around Kampala, as well as training other newcomers to the community in craft skills so that they too can become more than the sum of their circumstances.
They’re not just in it for themselves; although funds are distributed depending on how much each member produces, the group invests in building each member’s Income Generating Activities (IGA), each member contributing a daily amount of UGX5,000 (approximately $AUD2.00) which is collected and distributed to members rotationally on a weekly basis so that the women have an opportunity to build up their own side businesses outside the craft group (many have food business or sell shoes or jewellery) and go on to pay it forward, training other women who also dream of being self-reliant.
So far, the respective members within the group have collectively trained over 100 local women in crafts skills, not only enabling them to survive, but to thrive.
Naomi Steer, Founding National Director of Australia for UNHCR – the only international agency in Australia solely focused on refugees – has been championing the group from the beginning, explaining that the idea behind the group rests largely on the old proverb, ‘Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for his lifetime.’
“Study after study shows the economic wellbeing of women benefits the entire community and I would say this is a clear demonstration of that,” she says. “During the time I’ve worked with these dynamic women, I’ve seen those who were sleeping in the streets with their kids become business leaders who are now pressing on to become landowners.
“I’m not saying projects like this turn lives into fairytales but what they do is give women resilience, hope for a better tomorrow and keep them moving forward in a world where challenges at any other time might put slide them back to square one.”
A proponent for empowering women globally (Steer is also the name behind the new maternal health centre in The Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example), the group’s lifeline can when Australia for UNHCR became the group’s largest customer, purchasing 15,000 of keyrings in 2014 to include in its welcome packs for new donors.
“They key rings are well-received by our supporters, with many donors expressing fondness of supporting refugee employment,” says Steer of the beaded keyrings the group band together to work on – products that have enabled each member to rent a better home, feed their families and send their children to school.
“Each one carries a tag telling the women’s personal stories, reminding our donors of the families they’re helping and of course, with the situation in Uganda being what it currently is, help is needed more than ever.”
The refugee situation in Uganda
Steer touches on a crucial point; despite the jovial mood in the community centre today where strands of jewel-coloured beads hang from windowsills and tots squeal over the sound of their mother’s whirring Singer sewing machines, it’s important to point out that the refugee situation in Uganda, one of the largest refugee-hosting nations in the world (after Turkey and Pakistan) is critical.
According to the last official figures (September 30 2019) from UNHCR, it is home to 1,347,360 refugees and asylum seekers, with the majority of those having fled the neighbouring countries of South Sudan (63%) and The Democratic Republic of the Congo, also known as the DRC (28.5%), while Burundi, Somalia, Rwanda plus others make up the rest.
In recent months the numbers of those seeking safe haven from the violence in their homelands has intensified; during the month of July 2019 for example, Uganda welcomed an additional 15,719 refugees – a daily average of 507 people a day.
Where Uganda largely differs from other significant refugee-hosting nations is that the ‘Uganda model’ permits all refugees to work, cultivate land and live freely as private citizens, while also offering unrestricted access to government-provided health care and primary education.
It’s a great idea in theory, but resources are diminishing, tensions between locals and new arrivals are starting to rise and refugees in this part of the world are still woefully underfunded (to put this into context, UNHCR requires $USD386.2 million to fund refugees in Uganda, but it is currently only 26 per cent funded at $USD99 million).
Of those who have made Uganda their home, be it temporary or permanent, 95 per cent of refugees live in one of the country’s 11 settlements, while the remaining five per cent have moved into urban areas – a move which means they now must support themselves moving forward. Getting started? Well that’s a problem within itself.
A personal journey
Gloria Mbirinde’s story, she makes it clear, is not an easy one to hear. Her head is high, her jaw set in defiance, but it’s only when you look closely that you note the gentle decline of her shoulders and the way her hands tremble as she speaks.
Mbirinde’s body is a jigsaw of sorts, each part seemingly working at odds with one another, but it’s only when she begins to speak that the pieces all fall into place.
“Everyone knew that they came for you night,” she begins slowly, clearing her throat as she takes us from our current reality to her home country of The Democratic Republic of the Congo, a central African country marred by civil war and corruption, located just west of Uganda. “They would go from village to village raping and killing everyone they could find: men, women, children – even babies.”
In 2005, the rebels eventually made their way to the village where Mbirinde lived with her husband Simon Balagine, son Mujimba Simon, 10, and daughter Mutesi Titan, eight.
“For two years we slept outside in the bushes, too afraid to enter our own house in case they came, but then one night my husband said he was tired of being scared and that he wanted to sleep in our family home just one last time,” Mbirinde says quietly as she fixes her gaze at the small tufts of grass preserving to push out of the ground.
“He never came back; neighbours told me the following morning he’d been shot in the middle of the night and that’s when I knew that I was all alone and that I had no choice but to flee with my children.”
The first few years in Uganda were difficult. Desperate to try and make it on her own, Mbrinde often slept on the verandah of a church so she would have enough money to send her children to school, but even after she was able to rent a small house with no electricity or running water by doing odd jobs on a borrowed sewing machine, she never quite knew whether they would be able to eat tomorrow.
“I was desperate to make a life – a good one – so I learned English from the local Sunday School children and I began making it clear to anybody who would listen that I had sewing skills and that I was available to work,” she says.
“When I sent a card I had cross-stitched to my counsellor at Interaid Uganda at Christmas to thank them for their help, that was when everything changed. Some time later I received a call from them asking whether I knew how to make any other crafts items because they were looking at starting a new project that would become the Refugee Women’s Craft Group,” Meetings were had, introductions made and within weeks, a jubilant Mbrinde was able to purchase 10kg bags of salt, beans and maize for the first time in years.
“That’s the moment I could see my life changing,” Mbirinde says, her eyes welling with tears. It’s only later that she confides in me that her daughter never lived long enough to see her mother’s success; she grew sick and died of a blood disorder in 2017 just as the craft group was gaining momentum within Kampala city limits.
A circle of friends
With her excellent command of the English language and fierce determination to shed light on their struggles, it’s clear why Mrbirinde was elected by her peers to speak on their behalf, but over the course of the afternoon at the Antonio Guterres Urban Refugee Community Centre, their stories – sometimes assisted by translator Kipenda Uwase – break free, almost as though unable, nay unwilling, to be contained any longer.
“I came alone after becoming separated from my family and although I found a man here I believed could be my refuge, he dumped me after I delivered his baby. My baby also died at the nine-month mark,” 35-year-old Congolese native Nabami Nyaweza Nono tells Mindfood.
Agnes (surname withheld) fled her native Rwanda with her children after her eight-year-old daughter was attacked in their own home. “Uganda hasn’t been easy either; one night, people broke into my house and beat me and then three years later, I was abducted, raped and dumped in a forest. I test HIV positive after this incident,” she says.
Meanwhile Charlotte (name also withheld) is a single mother of three children including a 12-year-old who has cerebral palsy and is unable to do anything for herself. “She can’t eat, talk or walk and buying medicine isn’t easy,” she explains.
Under the shade of the white UNHCR tent offering welcome shelter from the relentless heat, the stories continue until the sun mercifully dips its head, but the ladies make it clear that no matter their origins and the circumstances which brought them here, this is ultimately a story of hope, love and the importance of sisterhood.
“Before I joined this group, I felt lonely for much of the time; the refugee experience is so isolating,” says 33-year-old Congolese mother of three and chairperson of the group, Chantal Uwera as her youngest daughter plays peek-a-boo between her legs. “My life only really started the day the day I joined the Refugee Women’s Craft Group, I truly believe that. These women became my family and today I say they’re my sisters and they’re my friends and I know that no matter what life throws at me, they will by my side supporting me.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by each of the women, Charlotte adding: “Being with this group means I can buy enough food to feed my children and pay for her medicals, which I couldn’t do before.”
Walking through the grounds, a collection of steamy demountable units fenced by graffiti artwork-covered walls, the moody is unexpectedly jovial.
With Singer machines endlessly whirring as mothers juggle toddlers on their laps and yards of fabric in their hands, children playing in the garden and the adults ribbing each other as they artfully display their wares on the trestle tables, there is a distinct feeling of possibility in the air as each room, each square metre in the garden is alive with industry.
One room houses a driving school, another is set aside for English and literacy classes, while a couple of doors down, there’s movie production and news reading, make up and hairdressing skills, and even charcoal-making out in the garden. In the sewing room where five women are currently stationed making scarves, the talk is about challenges that their particular group is facing. “Our biggest challenge is that so many students want to learn to sew but we don’t have much space so we can only train a handful of students at a time, and also, many cannot afford to buy any material to get started,” explains Uwera as she runs a finger over the brightly coloured nappies, bags and scrunchies on display out on the samples table. “What can we do?” she shrugs. “We can only try our hardest.”
It’s far from the group’s only challenge of course. It’s not unheard of for Ugandan authorities to swoop on the ladies’ street stalls and confiscate goods, or for family disharmony to break out as male traditionalists struggle with the concept of their women becoming the main breadwinners.
“So many men are still not in support of women going out to make money for the family,” explains Valentine Mugabekazi, a 30-year-old single mother of two from the DRC. “There’s a real need for counselling for many of the male household heads.”
But the most common problem the ladies comes cross is that new members – mothers predominantly – will quit before they’ve completed training as the urgency to have paid work is so great.
“It’s hard to be forward-thinking and devote yourself to training in new skills when your children are hungry and you don’t have any money coming in to feed them,” explains Uwera. “I learnt early on to say yes to every opportunity that came my way because I understood ‘yes’ always offered more hope than saying no.”
Regardless of the challenges the group faces, it’s onwards and upwards for the ladies who are currently in the process of creating an online marketplace and getting ready to take part in Australia for UNHCR’s new cultural immersion program, The Leading Women Uganda Immersion Experience, which encourages female leaders to travel to Uganda to see how UNHCR’s transformative projects life and empower refugee women in the region.
The trip, which includes a unique coaching and leadership program for high-powered Australian women, has a focus on a leadership exchange with the entrepreneurial women from the Refugee Women’s Craft Group and Mbirinde and Uwera are looking forward to meeting and skill-sharing with their fellow Australians who have already done so much for them.