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From the DRC to Zimbabwe – Meet Barthelemy

My name is Barthelemy Mwanza and I’m 28 years old. I fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in 2012 and came to Zimbabwe. I came alone but was reunited with my sister who was there already.

Congolese refugee Barthelemy Mwanza faces the camera, smiling, wearing a black blazer and white shirt.

I was born to parents from different tribes: my father is from Kasai and my mother is from South Kivu. There was a conflict between those tribes – and I would have been forced to join a group from South Kivu when I turned 18.

But that group kills people and does other bad things, and if I didn’t join, I would be killed. So to save my life, I left my country.

To get to Zimbabwe, I took a boat from the DRC to Zambia. From there, a truck took me to Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, where I met some people who help refugees. They put me on a bus, and that’s how I arrived at Tongogara refugee camp in Zimbabwe where I am now. 

Since 2012, I haven’t heard from my parents. The Red Cross is still looking for them. Maybe one day, I will find them. I am still waiting.

Pursuing his passion

Back in the DRC, I enjoyed my life. I spent time with my friends, worked with youth groups (which is a big passion of mine) and studied a lot because I’ve always dreamt of becoming a journalist.

Journalism became my passion when I saw broadcast news as a kid. I was inspired and started playing around with microphones. One day, I came across an opportunity to learn about the job at a TV station. I made my family take me there, and when I got home, I was really excited.

In the DRC, my vision was to educate young people. But when I arrived at the camp in Zimbabwe, I saw so many talented youth making things. So I decided that to help them, I need to communicate their talent on an international level. And I can do that through journalism.

BarthelemyJournalist & Youth Worker

It’s a long goal and I’m still trying to look for scholarships so that I can do either an undergraduate or a master’s degree, but this is my dream. I’ve already managed to publish some stories nationally. The next goal is to do that internationally.

Coping with challenges

In the DRC, it was hard for me to adjust because I did not speak the local language.

I also had problems accessing basic needs. In the DRC, I used to work a bit to earn money but here, I’m not allowed to work. A first, I received a monthly allowance equivalent to 15 American dollars. That wasn’t enough.

When I arrived at the camp, I compared my lives – the life I left at home to my life here. At first, I slept in a shop with a bad roof; when it rained, the water would get in my house. I would start crying, imagining what I could have become if I had stayed in the DRC.

With time, I realized that crying wouldn’t change anything. Instead, I involve myself in community work – and that’s how I build my future. I am optimistic. Whatever happens, I keep on looking forward.

BarthelemyJournalist & Youth Worker

The drive to help

I started community work in 2014 and in 2015. I became a Youth Mental Health Promotor at UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. From there, I worked as a youth leader of more than 5000 youths in Tongogara refugee camp.

Congolese refugee Barthelemy Mwanza holds an activist poster with a slogan about climate change, smiling at the camera.

Credit: © UNHCR/Dana Sleiman

I also became a childcare case worker with an organisation called Terre Des Hommes. After gaining experience with these two different types of work, I was nominated to be co-chair of UNHCR’s Global Youth Advisory Council. Now, I’ve graduated from being the co-chair.

Today, I work as a UNHCR protection monitor. I put refugees in touch with the UNHCR office. I have also been able to fundraise for some youth initiatives. Besides, I usually assist young people with their issues. I write emails to help with legal matters, for example.

BarthelemyJournalist & Youth Worker

When I came here, I worked with one person from UNHCR. He really inspired me. Even though he couldn’t gain anything from me, he was passionate about helping. So now, whenever I see a person facing a problem, I feel like I have the capacity to help. It’s my inner drive.

Proud to be a refugee

Being a refugee comes with limits. We don’t have the same rights as others. Also, the title ‘refugee’ poses barriers.Because of it, I can’t access some scholarships, and when I travel, I get stopped and my visa gets double checked – while everyone else passes easily.And there’s stigma. In Harare, there are some people who don’t even want to be called refugees. But me? I’m proud to be a refugee. For example, in the city, I often wear a shirt that says ‘refugee’ on it

I’m proud because being a refugee helped me realise certain dreams of mine. Instead of regretting the difficulties that happened to me, I think it’s better to channel them into an opportunity to raise awareness, help other refugees or pursue my vision.

BarthelemyJournalist & Youth Worker

And back in the DRC, I never travelled or participated in an international organisation. But since 2017, I’ve travelled. I even went to New York. For me, becoming a refugee is not something I regret.

Words of wisdom

When I’m feeling low, it helps to remember that I have dreams – like becoming a journalist. And secondly, what keeps me going is the people who come to me for help. If I’m not optimistic, I discourage them. So, the community I stand for gives me strength.

To me, the word ‘home’ means an identity which doesn’t change, no matter what. I left my home country for Zimbabwe – and still don’t feel like my identity has changed. I cannot separate it from me; it’s in my blood. Even in sports, I will always support the Congolese team.

BarthelemyJournalist & Youth Worker

I wish people understood that refugees are just like anyone else. The only difference is that certain situations pushed us to leave our home countries. Refugees should be allowed to enjoy the same rights as citizens. We have skills like others do and need opportunities to develop them so we can support ourselves and each other.

If I had to give other refugees advice, it’s to collaborate and work together. We are stronger that way. I would also say that we refugees shouldn’t be discouraged. We should use the word’ refugee’ as an opportunity to raise awareness and achieve our goals.