Andrew Trimble: ‘It’s strange to stand in a refugee camp and be inspired’
Ireland and Ulster rugby player Trimble travelled to two refugee camps in Tanzania
Rugby player and Oxfam Ireland ambassador Andrew Trimble tries on a handmade jacket which fits his shoulders but not quite his arms during a visit to a tailors’ workshop set up by Burundian refugees with the support of Oxfam at the Nyarugusu refugee camp in Tanzania. Photograph: Mary Mndeme/Oxfam
Burundian refugees Belange with her one-year-old son Remy and husband Habonimana meet Oxfam Ireland ambassador Andrew Trimble outside their tent in the Nduta camp in Tanzania. Photograph: Bill Marwa/Oxfam
Just over a week after returning home from the Ireland rugby tour in South Africa I found myself heading back to the same continent but for very different reasons.
Most of the people on the flight to Tanzania were heading there to climb Mount Kilimanjaro or go on safari. I was travelling with Oxfam Ireland to meet people affected by a crisis that is totally off the world’s radar.
In the past year, more than 130,000 people have fled their homes in Burundi because of unrest and crossed into neighbouring Tanzania.
It was my first time in this kind of situation and naturally you feel a bit self conscious – you’re aware of how you stand out. The people in the camp were very welcoming, but probably wondering who this bloke was and why he was having his photo taken beside the water pumps and the sanitation facilities.
Travelling through the camp, I was very aware that everybody you see – adults, children, even Oxfam volunteers – are refugees.
We heard stories about husbands and wives who got separated on the journey to safety, or ended up in different camps hours from each other and unable to reunite.
The two camps we visited – Nyarugusu and Nduta in the northwest of Tanzania – were different to how I expected. Dry season means everything is covered in red. It’s still on my shoes some time later back home in Belfast.
There are rows and rows of tents, but there is also shade, thanks to the trees. Some people have started to plant vegetables near their tents. The trees offer important protection from the sun for the children who study at the camp’s outdoor school.
There is a sense that going to school is at least providing them with some normality; something familiar, even if just for a few hours each day. Their teachers are also refugees.
With a few rugby balls brought from home, I tried to show them what rugby has to offer. It was a fun afternoon and one brave girl put up her hand to volunteer to try to tackle me. You could almost forget that these children have witnessed harrowing things. In that moment the kids were like any other group of children – laughing, smiling and simply wanting to play.
But children have to grow up quickly here, such as the five-year-old girl I saw carrying her baby brother. Or the small boy who was aged no more than 18 months, fetching water by himself. That’s when it struck me: he’s the same age as my wee fella, Jack, and he was out picking up water from the tap by himself. That’s the contrast.
We visited a children’s centre, a place where kids can come and play in safety. They were putting on a play about going to the toilet, as part of a project to teach children about staying safe and healthy. It was very funny but with a serious message because diseases such as cholera are a real threat in crowded camps so the children need to learn about washing their hands.
One of the refugees I met, Habonimana, came from Burundi. He’s 31, like me, and is also married and the proud dad of a one-year-old boy. This is actually his second time living the in the Nduta camp. He arrived there as a child in 1993 with his family and lived there until 2008. He found himself back in the Nduta camp this time with his wife and child in November 2015.
“This is the first time for my wife to be a refugee,” he says. “It wasn’t easy for her.”
Habonimana is passionate about making things better for everyone living in the camp, and has been voted as a community leader for one of the zones – he volunteers his time. He also works with Oxfam as a community hygiene promoter, while his wife has a job in one of the camp’s schools.
They both have diplomas in language studies. He was planning to graduate with a degree from university in Burundi before life changed so radically. Everything is on hold now. His certificates are inside his tent.
“Whenever I chat with relatives and friends who are in other countries and in universities, I feel bad, as my life has already bust.”
But he’s focusing on making each day count and I am in awe of how he and his wife have managed, coming here under pressure and raising a child.
That spirit and determination to keep going despite the odds was something I felt throughout the camp.
I met a group of men and women who had been tailors in Burundi and now work there with old-school Singer sewing machines. They told me that they are hoping lights can be installed in their workshop so as they can work longer hours.
They hadn’t heard of rugby, but they all knew about football. One of the tailors asked if I was wealthy like David Beckham, perhaps hoping I might be in the market for a wardrobe like Beckham’s.
I’m used to training for the physical strength and stamina needed for rugby, but that strength is surpassed by the mental fortitude and resilience shown by the people I met. People with hopes and dreams, looking for safety and security for their families and kids, a job, a home, a future.
It is a strange feeling to be temporarily planted in a world so alien; to have strangers who have lost everything smile at you and tell their life story, and young children whose futures are so uncertain put on an incredible performance of song and dance to welcome us visitors from Ireland.
But perhaps the strangest feeling of all was to stand in a place of such sadness and find myself so inspired.
Andrew Trimble travelled to Tanzania with Oxfam Ireland. To find out more about Oxfam’s Right to Refuge campaign, visit oxfamireland.org