18 Jan Canada Calling: a family of urban refugees prepare for a new life in Edmonton, Alberta

The word “refugee”, more often than not, conjures images of dispossessed families living in dirty and overcrowded camps, removed from the normalities of ordinary life. But two thirds of the world’s refugees live in urban settings, blending with the local population.

Howard McDonald

IOM Rwanda
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Idle Gure

COA Kenya Facilitator
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Louise Bélanger

COA Global Program Manager

The Rwandan capital of Kigali is consistently celebrated as a triumphant success story of economic growth, bolstered by high levels of security and international investment. The Government’s strategy to steer the country towards a skills-based economy is attracting investment from overseas and fuelling a growing middle class. But behind the high-rise buildings, peaceful neighbourhoods and spotless roadsides, it is easy to overlook the fact that nearly one Kigali resident in fifty is a refugee.

Germain Mukorelwa Messe and his family are among the 20,000+ urban refugees living in the country’s capital. Germain’s family fled the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) during the First Congo War in 1996.

When the violence claimed the life of his brother-in-law, Germain sent his wife Kasimbi, their seven children and her recently orphaned niece and nephew to Rwanda. I stayed behind because I knew my family would need money and there was no guarantee I could find work in Rwanda”. For four long years, as the conflict ebbed and flowed around him, Germain worked in a port on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. When the war finally caught up with him in 2000, he decided to join his family in Rwanda.

 “The joy of seeing my wife and children for the first time in four years was indescribable.”

Germain was among the lucky refugees to hold a university degree. As a francophone, he has also been able to find work as a high school teacher in Kigali. With the money he earned teaching finance and accounting, Germain and his wife Kasimbi were able to send all of their children – including their adopted niece and nephew – to school in Kigali. Everyone, including the eldest daughter, contributed to the household income as life became more difficult as refugees in Kigali.

Almost 20 years after having fled their native DRC, the Messe family are once more on the verge of uprooting their lives. This time however, it’s by choice. Their destination? Edmonton, Canada.

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Germain Mukorelwa Messe and his family after the COA session held in Kigali (June 2015).

The family completed the pre-departure COA session in Kigali in June 2015. The three-day session covered everything from travel preparation to initial settlement and longer-term integration and employment in Canada. In a couple of weeks, the family will be putting what they have learned into practice as they embark upon a new chapter of their lives.

The transition to a drastically different environment will not be without challenges for the Messe family. COA provides participants with accurate information to make informed settlement decisions, but a lot of participants are concerned by changes that may occur within their own family structure.

Men fear that Canadian law requires them to forfeit their role as the head of the family”, says Idle Gure, COA facilitator in Eastern Africa. “In African cultures, the concept of gender equality and women’s empowerment is very different from that in the West. My role is to reassure them that simply because women are empowered, it does not mean the men have the throw in the towel.

According to Gure, one of the most effective means of communicating this message is through a home economics exercise in which groups are asked to balance a household budget with a set of limiting circumstances.

Almost always, the groups come out with a huge deficit in their budget. When we discuss possible solutions, the usual answer is my wife will need to find a job too’. In this way we can show that not only the woman’s job is in no way threatening the husband’s status, but it is a positive (sometimes essential) contribution to the family’s standard of living.

Changing a lifetime of socially-engrained behaviours may be difficult with some participants, but Germain Messe is ready to embrace the challenge wholeheartedly. Wearing a half-concealed grin of amusement, Kasimbi pays close attention as her husband explains how his initial fears have been redressed.

Before the COA session, I had heard that the laws in Canada meant that men had to do the work that women usually do here in Africa. But the trainer made it clear that if my wife is working, and the baby needs a fresh diaper, without a grandmother, an auntie or a house help to do it, I will have to do it myself. I realise that it isn’t the law that forces men to do housework, just the prevailing circumstances of our situation. Now I need to ask my wife to teach me how to do all these things!

While Germain and Kasimbi have considered Rwanda as a temporary home, most of their children have grown up thinking of Kigali as their home. I was too young to remember life back in the Congo. says Juliene, their 21-year-old daughter. I am excited by this opportunity, but part of me is sad to leave my friends behind. I hope I will be able to make new friends in Canada”.

As they settle in Edmonton, the first priority of every member of the Messe family will be to learn English. Germain wants to take full advantage of the support offered on arrival to push his education beyond his B.A in Accounting and Finance and has set his sights on a Master’s degree. Hopefully this will help me provide for my family. Juliene is also keen to go back to school and would like to enrol in a university program upon arrival in Canada.

As Germain, Kasimbi, and their nine children prepare to say goodbye to their life in Rwanda, they do so with a renewed sense of confidence and determination to make the most of the opportunities that have presented themselves, and finally, after nearly 20 years, to take life back into their own hands.