Clemantine Wamariya and the Harsh Reality of Life as a Refugee

Clemantine Wamariya, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide, speaks at the 17th commemoration of the International Day of Reflection on the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda, at UN Headquarters.

This week, The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clemantine Wamariya was released, and with it comes a picture of the grim reality that refugees running from conflict face each day. Wamariya, in her book based on a piece previously published in Medium, writes about her life before and after arriving in the United States: she and her sister, fleeing the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, spent six years moving through seven different countries in Africa, in and out of refugee camps. As they escaped one conflict, they found themselves facing violence on the personal, local, and regional levels as well. In 2000, they were granted refugee status in the United States, and the book also follows Wamariya’s journey as she struggles with life as an American, and how to live with the divergent realities of her past and her present.

One of the aspects of this book was the exposure of the realities of those refugee camps, and the near impossibility of escaping them. As Wamariya and her sister moved from country to country, they tried to find a way to settle outside of the camps, only to be told repeatedly that as refugees the only place they were allowed to live was a refugee camp. Not allowed to seek work outside of the camps, Wamariya’s sister ultimately sought to make money via the black market—selling goat meat to other refugees, exchanging pasta from Italian aid workers to locals for extra cash.

According to a recent Economist article, “nearly 90% [of refugees] reside in poor countries. In many, to preserve jobs for natives, governments bar refugees from working in the formal economy.” Refugees, thus, must stay in refugee camps, relying on UN handouts and living in a kind of limbo. In Uganda, however, they write that “the government gives refugees land plots and lets them work. In some places, the refugees boost local businesses and act as a magnet for foreign aid.” In fact, “one study from 2016 found that the presence of Congolese refugees in western Uganda had increased consumption per household. Another estimates that each new refugee household boosts total local income, including that of refugees, by $320-430 more than the cost of the aid the household is given.”

The UN states that migrants spend 85% of earnings in their host countries, with the other 15% going back to their home countries in the form of remittances. Offering opportunities to refugees to contribute to the local and global economy by working has the potential to not only give a boost to the countries in which they fled to, but also to give them a way to connect to their new communities and surroundings.

It’s not a perfect situation: giving refugees work does not always improve conditions for everyone. The Economist notes: “Refugee influxes produce both winners and losers. In Tanzania, a surge of Burundian and Rwandan refugees from 1993 caused a sharp rise in food prices, helping local farmers but hurting town-dwellers. Even in northern Uganda, protesting locals blocked a road last year, complaining that their hopes for improved living conditions and abundant jobs had not been met.” There is no one clear answer for how countries should handle an influx of refugees, or whether or not refugees will thrive once they settle in another country. Some, like Clemantine Wamariya, eventually succeed and thrive, and others struggle to gain solid footing.

The thousands and millions of people fleeing ongoing conflicts today, from South Sudanese to Syrians to the Rohingya, can lead to refugees feeling dehumanized, public health crises in camps (both physical and mental), and economic dependency due to lack of work. One way to combat and perhaps even prevent these problems is to work with refugees and host countries to ensure that everyone involved feels a sense of empowerment: that refugees have the chance to contribute and work and support themselves and their families, and that the locals still feel as if they are in control of their communities as well. It’s far from an easy task, one that takes tremendous sensitivity and cross-cultural understanding on the part of both aid workers, community members, government officials, and refugees themselves, but Uganda shows that it can be and has been done.


The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clemantine Wamariya (Penguin Random House)

Everything Is Yours, Everything Is Not Yours

Refugees need not be a burden, if they are allowed to work

UN Refugees & Migrants