Malawi: albino refugees find some succour in camp
16 January 2015

Esther Kurtz, Malawi country director with some of the albino children who received assistance from the organisation in Dzaleka (Jesuit Refugee Service).
Everyone was looking for a piece of them: fishermen to increase their catch, soldiers to be formidable and invincible in battle and businessmen to increase their profits.

Dzaleka, 16 January 2015 – Imagine having parts of your body considered to be valuable for charms to bring fortune and help businesses prosper. Many people in the Great Lakes and East Africa regions believe that the body parts of albinos can be used to bring luck. Thus, albinos are treated as valuable commodities and the albino refugees who arrive in Dzaleka all share similar stories of flight and fear for their lives. While many find some sense of security being in the camp, the specific problems of albinos are often ignored by agencies working in the camps. 

Challenges for those born with albinism include discrimination in various forms, procuring vital sunscreen lotion, sunglasses and reading glasses and fighting allergic reactions to limited nutritional options.

Koko Haruma, is 24 years old and from South Kivu in DRC. He was a university student studying English when rumours started that people were planning to abduct and kill him to sell his body parts. During a holiday at his parents’ home, Koko discovered a plot for his abduction. His parents advised him to flee to Burundi, but there his insecurity continued and the local police assisted him to flee to Tanzania. In Tanzania, a mob plotted to kill him and he decided to seek asylum in Malawi. He arrived in Dzaleka refugee camp in 2011.

Asifiwe and Moise are albino siblings. Their parents fled the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to save their children’s lives after persistent threats from various sectors of their society in South Kivu. Everyone was looking for a piece of them: fishermen to increase their catch, soldiers to be formidable and invincible in battle and businessmen to increase their profits. A brother of Asifiwe and Moise, also an albino, was killed in 2012. Thereafter the family decided to flee to Dzaleka camp.

Nine-year-old Veko Mapenzi came to Dzaleka camp in 2013 with his brothers. They fled the Congo because of threats on his life as an albino. Veko, now in Standard 5, once in a while gets taunted by classmates for being an albino, but teachers come to his rescue by discouraging discrimination against him.

In addition to all the other problems albinos face in the camp, the parents of Asifiwe and Moise face a lot of ridicule for having so many albino children. They have become fearful and seldom let their children out of their sight. This prevents them from engaging in meaningful income-generating activities to support the family. Some women have encouraged them to sell their children to escape poverty and offered to help find a market for them. Now in Standard 2, Asifiwe rarely plays with her friends, because of the discrimination against her. 

Providing support

The Malawi country director for Jesuit Refugee Service, Esther Kurz, took a personal interest in this largely neglected group. There was relief on the part of the albino refugees in Dzaleka when JRS, as an implementing partner for UNHCR, provided the albinos with soap and sunscreen lotion which they greatly need, but cannot afford. Recently, JRS paid for eye examinations and provided reading glasses for Koko, Veko and Asifiwe. 

“I am so grateful to JRS for all the support,” commented Koko. “For a very long time we felt that there is no hope for albinos. Security did not mean much if we could not afford a decent life. The sunscreen lotion helps a lot and my sight has greatly improved with the eye glasses.”
The call for support from other implementing partners in the camp was unanimous. Challenges and issues have been reported to the various IPs working with refugees but none have so far provided any solution or responded.

“It would be good if all other IPs took the example of JRS,” Koko said. “Life is challenging enough being in a refugee camp, and being an albino doesn’t help. Sometimes you feel there is systematic discrimination against albinos from the IPs as well.”

Percy Chikwela, Education Project Director, Dzaleka camp, Malawi

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Leah Marais
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