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Deborah Ntakirutimana

Deborah Ntakirutimana

Biography written by Deborah Ntakirutimana


I am Deborah Ntakirutimana
I'm a young woman from Burundi residing in Malawi Dzaleka Refugee Camp right now. My family and I lived in a refugee camp in Tanzania before moving to Malawi. For more than 20 years, I have been a refugee. Being a girl growing up in a refugee camp has never been easy for me, but I'm thankful that despite all the odds, I have persisted.

For now, I reside with my family: my parents, brothers, and sisters, of which I am the eldest. In addition to my two younger sisters and younger brothers, the rest of the family includes older sisters and brothers who are now having their own families. Our family has never found living in a refugee camp to be an easy experience, especially in light of the numerous challenges we encounter on a daily basis. We arrived in Malawi in 2004 and immediately encountered challenges as refugees in the Luwani Camp in Mwanza. Because of their tribe, my parents experienced multiple acts of torture and discrimination, and as kids, we also had to endure these things.

After three years there, they relocated from Luwani Camp to Dzaleka Camp in 2007. At the time that time we have been residing in Dzaleka Camp, we have experienced numerous family tragedies, including the two instances that a group of individuals set fire to our house, as well as the repeated attacks on some of my brothers under the same accusation that we don't seem to belong to any tribe. We made repeated attempts to voice our issues to those we believed could best assist us. In the end, we came to the conclusion that they could do nothing for us other than expose our problems to everyone, which makes it much riskier in the community to claim to have been attacked or beaten.

I completed all of my elementary, secondary, and university coursework in a refugee camp, hoping for a better future, but the road was fraught with difficulties. My parents did not have status at the time I graduated from secondary school, so being their daughter on the same file meant that I also was rejected in that I was not allowed to get any other opportunities in terms of education or job outside of the ones provided in the camp. As a result, all of my expectations to be assisted with a scholarship like other students were in vain.

Also, no refugee is permitted to live outside of the camp or pursue a job. All refugees are permitted to work only as volunteers, which means they are not permitted to get compensation like citizens. In addition to working a full-time job and having all the commitments, efforts, and sacrifices they make, then to only have that little money. We are paid a very small amount of money as a token of appreciation rather than as a paycheck.

After my secondary school, my parents decided that I should join my elder sister and brother who were in Lusaka, Zambia. After I had spent a year volunteering at the Camp in 2015. I had a lot of stress and disappointments about not continuing my education, and they thought that would be better at the time. My parents thought it would be better at the time since I wouldn't be seeing how my classmates were getting opportunities that I was not allowed to. Deep down I knew and I could see how my parents wanted me to go further with education, and several times my Dad would tell me that I know you are a very strong girl and you will make it.

In the same year of 2015 at the end I traveled to Lusaka Zambia. Due to a refugee crisis in 2017 things did not go as planned in Lusaka as well. Many riots against refugees began that year. While refugees were being falsely accused, locals took advantage by robbing their stores and breaking into them. And during the same situation, some people were beaten.

This was a tough time for the refugees in Lusaka, and it had an impact on a lot of young people and children who attended schools there. The rallies against refugees gave me anxiety and tension. My elder brother and sister had promised to take me for further schooling, but I had to wonder if I would truly be able to learn given the terrifying circumstances I had witnessed.

All of my hopes at the time looked to be dead in the water, and I had no idea how I was going to start over from scratch after realizing that even the places where I traveled in the expectation that things would turn out better did not go as planned. After seeing what happened when I stopped showing my elders any interest in school, I took the decision to stop worrying them. I also made the decision to return to Malawi in 2018 with new expectations and a different outlook.

I had the opportunity to apply to Regis University, which is located in the Camp, in the same year of 2018. Fortunately, I was chosen, and I began my studies in 2019. I am now a social worker who has graduated. My mother fell ill that same year, 2019, and I had to make a commitment to myself that I would put in extra effort to finish my studies, which were scheduled to take three years, in just one and a half. And I had to begin looking for employment opportunities so that my sick mother could quit her job because of her dire health.

My mother's condition worsened as expected over my first six months. And as I was her older daughter, so, I had to accompany her to several hospitals for treatment. Even while I was in the hospital for up to two weeks at a time, I managed to find a means to upload my work on the internet.

I traveled with her to Zambia for the treatment, but still, I had promised that I should finish my studies at the university if I got the chance to. Later after coming back home, I thought of searching where I should be working so that I could finish the promised 1 year and a half while working, but I found it very challenging. I applied to three different places searching for a job, but I couldn’t believe the feedback that I was getting about having to be in a relationship with the hiring managers first so that I can get a job.

When I applied for the job and received different feedback than I had anticipated, it was a stressful time for me. My dad's close friend was the first place I applied to. He was the boss, and he started telling me how he could even help me get a better position if I agreed to date him. It got more difficult for me to figure out how to tell Dad about this information once I realized that this supervisor was a friend of his. I had to consider their relationship, and I was too afraid to tell anyone for fear that it might affect me.

My mother used to believe that I never wished to apply for a job, since I was occupied much with her health condition, but I was secretly hiding my prior job-seeking experience. When I applied at a different job, the boss quickly took my number and invited me to stay with him over the weekend the same day, in the evening. I recall having to read his message and respond to him while my hands were shaking, and I was dropping tears.

He texted me to say that if I had known that I was speaking to someone who might entirely transform my life in this camp, I wouldn't have been acting so obstinately because I had not seen him on the weekend as he had requested.

The third one I can recall, we made friends after meeting in a town far from the camp at a certain occasion, and I asked him if he might assist me in finding employment outside the camp. I was shocked by how quickly he responded to my inquiry about a job opening at his place of employment in less than 3 months. He also assured me that, because he and the employer are good friends, I already had the position, so I shouldn't worry too much.

When I received the response that I would be living with him and moving to another location and that I would live far from the firm, I was shocked. I recall that after a heated argument, he accused me of being unappreciative for failing to make a sacrifice for him by staying with him even for a few days while he sacrificed looking for a job.

I had a lot of whys and questions for myself, but no answers. And due to my current state of extreme depression and the challenging circumstances at home, it took me a long time to focus on my academics. I was afraid of what may happen to me or my family if I reported him, but I had no one to report to. I made the decision to swallow it and attempt to concentrate on my schoolwork.

This has been my worst ever experience as a girl growing up in a camp for refugees. I wished I told my Mum what I was going through but with her condition at the moment it was like putting her health at risk by stressing her more. I had to avoid that by all means and to make sure she didn’t suspect me of not being ok all this time. I wished my older sisters were there so I could have told them about the trauma I was going through and gotten more support from them emotionally and for my mental health.

I've got wounds from the experience that will take a while to heal. I developed fear towards all the companies which are led by men. I had a lengthy history of not being able to trust men, so I avoided falling in love with anyone for a very long time with the experience I had.

Since then, I've vowed never to look for employment and to keep such a thing a secret from my parents, my siblings, or anyone else. In particular, I made a point of keeping it a secret from my younger sisters, who I knew needed to be protected from this at all costs by not letting them know what I was going through. By doing this, I was able to prevent a lot of issues and shield my entire family from how they could respond.

However, deep down I was dying because I needed someone I could confide in and tell about the trauma I was going through. I wished to have support, counsel, and comfort from my older sisters, my mother, or anyone very close. But I had to keep it to myself because I was afraid of how it might affect me or my family. I used to rock myself in the room while writing whatever that came to me during the trauma period. Singing served as my temporary kind of rehabilitation. I've always loved singing, and every time I sing, it gives me new hope.

I remember at one point having dreams about a certain song and waking up in the middle of the night to write it down since there was nothing else that could have helped me at the time but singing and listening to the music. I used to sing and cry occasionally as I thought back on everything I had been through. When my younger sister used to ask me why I cried during my singing, I would reply that I was in a holy spirit and didn't want her to disturb me.

So even though I was literally in tears, I gave that response to convince her that I am not stressed out at all, and that I am doing great. And it turns out that singing is my therapy since I've always liked singing in church too much. In fact, when I was 11 years old, our church allowed me to join the youth chorus even though it was against the rules. I started singing with young people when I was very little, and even my family realized that if there was anything I could do in church better, it would be singing. The rest comes after.

In addition to singing during church, I also sing or listen to music on my phone while I sleep any time I'm sad or agitated. That greatly assisted me in overcoming my sadness at the time.After going through all of these horrible situations, I felt completely defeated, lost, and heartbroken for not keeping my word. Thanks to Takeno LAB, I was able to stay busy during difficult times by studying online and learning there.

I began attending TeknoLAB as a student and began computer programming there, but after a few months I had to start taking my mother to various hospitals, so I was unable to complete the entire course. Despite this, TakenoLAB did not forbid me from using their facilities or resources. As I didn't have a computer at the time and couldn't afford to buy data to complete my university assignments, I spent the majority of my time using their computer, workspace, and internet.

Once I had rebuilt myself, my thoughts first turned to young girls who might be experiencing similar tragedy. I then considered coming up with a plan for how these females could earn money to support themselves. I developed Star Cosmetics with the help of Mr. Remy Gakwaya, the founder and CEO of Takeno LAB and my mentor. I spoke to a particular group of girls when I went to see them and was moved by both their stories and mine. From there, we created a group of females, and these females discovered how to create both liquid and solid soaps.

The inspiration for this entire project stemmed from my hope for females to be independent and not to have to go through or endure what I did. We desired a product that women and moms raising children on their own could generate with their own labor and earn at least some money to cover their fundamental requirements. The plan worked well; I began with a small group of girls and was helped by Takeno LAB and Mr. Remy to produce those liquid soaps. Even though we lacked the funds to grow our business as I had hoped.

The name of this group, cosmetics, was chosen after considering the products we wished to create. We decided to form one such group under the name of Star Cosmetics.

Many thanks to my parents who always used to tell me that we trust you, you are strong and you’ll succeed. These words kept me going and working extra hard. And also my young ones who have been my close friends besides not knowing what I was going through. Many thanks too, to Mr. Remy Gakwaya, who has served as my mentor and counselor during these trying times and helped me to better myself in the wake of all the challenges I've faced.

Finally, my past is now history because I've realized my potential. I can rely on myself, and am happy to be able to provide for my family in whatever manner I can without putting my life in danger like I used to. And I'm happy that I've rebuilt myself again and regained my confidence and hope. This gives me the strength to work even harder so that I won't have to live in the past anymore.

And I've always wanted to raise the voices of young women, particularly refugees who are denied many rights simply for being refugees. Yes, I haven't yet reached my desired position because I haven't achieved my goals yet, and there is still a long way to go. But I'm not where I was. I currently hold the positions of Director of Star Cosmetics, procurement and operations officer at Takeno LAB the (ICT Academy), and Procurement and Operation officer at Relon Malawi as well. (The Refugee led Organisation)

Working on both sides has never been simple, but there are times when we are forced to do so and we are unwilling to give up so quickly on our objectives. We freely admit that we put in extra effort as volunteers on behalf of refugees and the environment, but our mission to speak up for the voiceless, encourage young women to pursue self-employment, and foster self-confidence in them remains the same.