Great effort goes into to delivering COA sessions at the Kouankan II Refugee Camp in Guinea

16 Jun Great effort goes into to delivering COA sessions at the Kouankan II Refugee Camp in Guinea

The tragic outbreak of the Ebola virus in Guinea, between 2013 and 2014, meant that a large number of refugees could not be trained through the Canadian Orientation Abroad (COA) program before departing for their new lives in Canada. In August 2016, a mobile mission was organized from Ghana to Guinea to deliver multiple COA training sessions to a group of 111 Canada-bound refugees.
The sessions at the Kouankan II Refugee Camp were the first COA sessions ever conducted at the camp, and outside of the capital, Conakry. Facilitator, Patience Lartey, reports on her experience taking on this challenge and marking a new milestone for COA operations worldwide.

My mission began in Conarky, the seaside capital of Guinea, where one session was held for 29 refugees, from August 4-6, 2016. The diverse group of participants included Ivorians, Sierra Leoneans and Congolese. The session in Conakry was followed by three additional sessions at the Kouankan II Refugee Camp, nearly 800km inland from Conarky, from August 8-19, 2016.

plartey 1

Patience Lartey

COA Trainer

To get to the Kouankan II Refugee Camp, I joined a UN flight from Conakry to Nzerekore, the regional capital and Guinea’s second-largest city.  The UN flight, I was told, had been operating since the beginning of the “Ebola crisis” in Guinea. My personal suitcase, training trunk, training materials, and bags had to go ahead of me on the two-day journey by road. The bags went ahead by road because the UN flight’s aircraft was too small, and passengers were only allowed 15kgs of luggage on board.

I boarded my flight to Nzerekore on August 8th, and after a smooth hour of flying with a brief stopover at Kissodougu to disembark and board a few passengers, we landed in Nzerekore. I was met at the landing base by a very friendly IOM driver, and brought to the IOM sub-office in Nzerekore. I had a short meeting at the office with the logistics team, to ensure that all logistical arrangements had been finalized for the upcoming nine days of training at the camp. A caterer had been identified to prepare lunch for each training day, and a four-wheel drive vehicle and driver had been hired for the whole period. The participants’ lunch, water, fuel for the generator, and training materials had to be transported to and from the camp daily. The IOM sub-office in Nzerekore made available a projector, a generator and a flipchart for use during the training.  All these materials had to be transported to and from the camp daily because their security could not be assured.

Living conditions at Kouankan II are basic.
Living conditions at Kouankan II are basic.

The Kouankan II Refugee Camp is situated within the Macenta prefecture or province which is under the jurisdiction of the Nzerekore Region. The distance from Nzerekore, which is the capital of the Nzerekore region to the camp is about 120km. Due to the absence of an approved accommodation close to the camp, I had to travel from Nzerekore to the camp, daily, for nine days. The journey to the camp was approximately a two-hour drive through a number of small towns and thick forests. The first 100km of the journey to the camp, took about one hour thirty minutes on a fairly good asphalt road, riddled with a number of potholes. The remaining 20km to the camp was covered in approximately 30 minutes on an untarred road, winding through a number of small villages.

The security at the camp was very tight. Any visitor to the camp needed an authorization letter before entering. In like manner, the refugees could not also leave the camp without permission. The entrance of the camp was manned by military officers. A staff from the IOM sub-office in Nzerekore accompanied me each day to the camp to present an authorization letter, and also assist in the coordination of the logistics for the training. Due to the Ebola outbreak, and particularly because of its severity in Guinea, especially in the forest region where the camp is situated, one of the precautions adopted at the camp was a strict hand-washing routine for anyone entering the camp. There was a bucket with water at the entrance of the camp, as well as in other strategic locations across the camp. According to some of the refugees I interacted with, no refugee contracted the Ebola virus, even though the prevalence rate in the region was one of the highest in the country.

Simple structures, such as the one the COA sessions were held in, make up much of the camp.

The Kouankan II Refugee Camp is home to mainly Ivorian refugees, and a few refugees from the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Most of the Ivorian refugees had been living in the camp for 10 to 14 years after they were displaced from their country of origin by recurrent civil unrest. The refugees indicated that the initial assistance provided by UNHCR when they initially arrived at the camp was very good. They were given soap, rice, oil, beans and salt. This support, according to them, had unfortunately dwindled over the years. The full support, including food was currently only given to those who were considered vulnerable, i.e. usually those who were sick. They rest who fell outside the vulnerable bracket were now only given soap.

The camp had about 5,700 registered refugees. There are about 500 housing units (mostly built with clay), a number of boreholes and pit latrines. The majority of the inhabitants were unemployed. A few of them engaged in petty trading and selling of food. Others had small farms and the youth were mostly involved in the motor taxi business. Other facilities at the camp, included a dilapidated basketball court, a football field, a health post, a distribution centre, a youth and adolescent information centre, a UNHCR office, a number of small churches and a mosque. There was a primary school at the camp but secondary schools were in Kouankan village and Seredou, a nearby town. Refugees who qualified for university went to Nzerekore, Conakry, Kankan and Faranah.

French is the official language of the Ivorian refugees. They also have a number of local languages like Yakuba, Bete, Gurle, Baoule, Malinke and Koulango. Their staple food is ‘atseke’, ‘placali’, cassava fufu (all are cassava meals), rice, cassava and potato leaves stew, palm butter soup and okro soup.

Refugees participate in the "Who is a Canadian?" activity. The photographs used in the activity challenge stereotypes and showcase the diversity of Canadians.
Refugees participate in the "Who is a Canadian?" activity. The photographs used in the activity challenge stereotypes and showcase the diversity of Canadians.

The three COA sessions at the camp, were delivered at the adolescent and youth information and counselling centre. It is a small wooden structure with enough tables and chairs for all the participants. I had to use a white cloth to improvise as a projector screen. To dim the room when we were using the projector, we had to close the doors and windows. A room was also allocated for use as a childminding space. A childminder was arranged to take care of the children who were not age-eligible for the session. The childminding room was not too far from the training room, which made it easier for nursing mothers to breastfeed and check on their infants.

All three sessions at the camp were successfully conducted without any glitches. Even though it rained on most of the training days (the training coincided with the rainy season), all of the 83 Ivorian refugees who were trained at this camp were present for every session. The refugees trained had very little information about Canada before the session. They knew it was close to the United States and that it was very cold. They had also heard about some cities like Toronto, Vancouver, Montréal and Ottawa. In a variety of interactive ways and activities, they got to learn so much more about Canada. Some of the topics discussed included the travel to Canada, Geography of Canada, Cultural adaptation, Resettlement Assistance programme, Housing, Healthcare, Laws, Transportation, Education, Employment and Money management. They were given COA informational packages, which included the COA bag, pen, the COA Participant Workbook Handbook and other printed informational materials. Participants had a number of expectations in Canada. Some participants or their dependents, who had health issues, were looking forward to treatment in Canada. There were also some physically-challenged people who also looked forward to better medical support in Canada.

Participants worked together to review baggage restrictions and best practices for packing luggage. For many, the flight to Canada would be their first time on an airplane.
Participants worked together to review baggage restrictions and best practices for packing luggage. For many, the flight to Canada would be their first time on an airplane.

Apart from the main sessions, there were side sessions which allowed additional time for refugee youth. A great number of the youth were interested in sports in Canada, especially football (perhaps due to the fact that a number of Ivorian and African footballers were doing well on the world stage). One youth even asked: “Can I be a footballer in Canada’’? How to make friends and what school in Canada is like were also high on their list of concerns and curiosities. They were excited and looked forward to seeing snow for the first time during winter. Though they had a francophone background, a few of the participants were eager to become bilingual, and had started taking English lessons at the camp.

COA Facilitator Patience Larety leads a youth session at Kouankan II.
COA Facilitator Patience Larety leads a youth session at Kouankan II.

At the end of the training, participants generally indicated that they had gained a great deal of knowledge about Canada. They knew what to expect in Canada and what would also be expected from them. They said they felt adequately prepared for their resettlement in Canada.

As a facilitator, I felt happy when all three sessions were successfully delivered at the camp, because it meant that I had accomplished my mission. The sessions at the camp were quite draining. I had to physically and mentally brace myself each day, for the journey to and from the camp for the entire period of nine days. It was very tiring traveling such a distance each day, however, at the end of the sessions, I felt like it was all worth it – especially when I sensed the refugees’ renewed hope and confidence in the future, and heard their words of appreciation for the COA training.

COA graduates at Kouankan II display their certificates after completing the sessions.

I returned to Conakry on August 19th on the same small UN flight. Unlike the flight to Nzerekore, the return trip to Conakry was not so smooth. We were unable to land in Conakry for over an hour as the same seasonal rains that characterized our sessions had stormed over the capital. I finally returned to Ghana on August 21st, a little tired, but feeling a great sense of accomplishment about the mobile training mission, and especially optimistic for the refugees who had humbled me with their resilience and immense gratitude.