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The Festive Season Means Homesickness for Millions of Exiles and Refugees

refugee playing a guitar in Tongogara refugee camp

As most people take time to celebrate the Christmas and the New Year’s holidays with relatives and friends, for tens of millions of exiles and refugees that have fled threats, wars, turmoil and persecution at home, such celebrations remain a dream that only serves to deepen their homesickness.

At the end of every year, Alex Magaisa (45), returned home to Zimbabwe from the United Kingdom where he is a law professor at the University of Kent to spend the festive season with relatives and his childhood friends. For at least three weeks, he would go around the country, from one town to another and from village to village, hugging and chatting with people who are dear to his heart. 

However, this year it has been different. Magaisa could not come for this annual ritual that normally serves to recharge the batteries of his inner self and to sustain him for another long year ahead. Now he’s not sure if he will ever be able to perform this ritual again in his life. This is because the law expert, who is also a prolific blogger, decided to put the public good ahead of his own personal safety. He published a leaked list of people who benefited from a scandalous US$200 million Zimbabwe government farming support loan scheme but never bothered to repay their loans. 

Making it on this list of “looters” – which understandably had been kept under lock and key for more than a decade – are many of the country’s political and military elites – past and present – including the current president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, and his predecessor, the late Robert Mugabe.

When Magaisa made the bold decision to publish this explosive list, he knew that he was kissing good-bye to his annual ritual of coming back to Zimbabwe to rekindle his love for his roots during the festive season.

“When I published the beneficiaries of the Farm Mechanisation Scandal, I knew I had given up my right to see the beautiful mountain of my home, Gandamasungo,” Magaisa said in an emotional post on his Facebook wall. 

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“I have never missed Gandamasungo (mountain) as I do now. This (is) the land that holds the umbilical cord. The land of my people. But it’s a sacrifice that had to be made. It had to be done. To Gandamasungo, I will miss you Old Lady, but hopefully not for long, or forever. I had to do it for the sons and daughters of the land… Sometimes you have to give up the beautiful things to do the right thing. These are the sacrifices #ZimbabweanLivesMatter.”

Tens of Millions Like Him Globally

The homesickness that Magaisa is only starting to feel has long been a hard fact of life for tens of millions of exiles like him globally who are unable to return to their home countries because of the grave dangers that await them there if they would dare return. 

These range from journalists to political activists, LGBTQ+ people, environmental rights campaigners, writers, victims of religious persecution and many others who not only can not return home but in some cases also have to walk with their backs firmly to the wall and sleep with one eye open even when they are living in relative freedom.

It’s Worse for Refugees, Asylum Seekers

However, unlike people like Magaisa who are privileged to have other choices, for 53-year old Pierre, a Rwandan refugee living in Zimbabwe’s Tongogara Refugee Camp, there is no convivial place to return. He fled Rwanda during the country’s 1994 genocide in which nearly a million people were killed. When most of his family members were rounded up and killed and their land was taken over by a rival tribal group, he first fled to Kenya, before moving further south ending up in Zimbabwe in 2003, having covered thousands of kilometres mostly on foot. 

“Yes, I may feel homesick but the reality that I have since accepted is that there is no place called home for me to return to,” Pierre said. “This place is now my home,” added the father of five who says he is now raising his children without giving them any hope of returning to Rwanda. 

Tongogara Refugee Camp, some 420 km south-east of Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, is home to more than 12,000 refugees from about half-a-dozen African countries. The refugees range from new arrivals that are fleeing from worsening terrorist attacks in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province to Burundians, Congolese and Rwandans that fled their homes some decades ago. Some of them have hopped from one refugee camp to another to avoid forced repatriation to home countries that they feel are too dangerous for them to return. 

Most of the facilities in Tongogara Refugee camp are run down. Credit Author

In the case of Rwandans like Pierre, some “come and see, go and tell” visits organized by the Kigali administration in partnership with the United Nations High Commission for Refugee (UNHCR) to assure them that their homeland is now safe have yielded limited success. 

Camps are their Whole World

Africa, where wars and civil unrests have stubbornly refused to go away, is home to more refugees who live in camps (about 18 million, or about 26% of the global total), which are spread throughout more than 30 countries. Kenya alone is host to the world’s four biggest refugee camps that are teeming with refugees from conflicts in the Great Lakes region, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, South Sudan and others. 

Asia has about a dozen countries hosting refugees in various camps; the Middle East has about 10 refugee host countries, while Europe has 17 countries hosting refugees.

Most of the world’s 80 million refugees can only watch with envy every year as citizens of the host countries wind down their business to prepare for festivities associated with the Christmas and New Year’s Day holidays. For most of these people, whom fate has condemned to life in the camps, any form of getting together with family and friends in familiar environments is something that they can only enjoy in their dreams because to them the little camps are now their whole world. 

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In cases like that of the 1,5 million Palestinian refugees in 59 camps scattered across Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, this has been the only life that they have known since 1948 when the refugee camps started forming. 

In these camps, the carefree life that many citizens of the world usually take for granted is replaced with a severely restricted life lived within the confines of tiny spaces with scant facilities and social services, where one has to be extra resourceful to be able to eke a living from very limited opportunities. So limited are opportunities in these camps that reports suggest that most refugees only earn cash by selling part of their food rations even though they already survive on the most threadbare of diets.

In these communities, most refugees suffering from homesickness try to console themselves by marrying among their own, teaching their children their home languages, music, fashion, foods and other cultural items that they can cling on to.

Mental Health Issues

Studies have shown that refugees suffer from a wide range of traumas incurred in their home country and during their journey to other countries. However, the mental health problems resulting from violent conflicts, such as post-traumatic stress disorders and disaster-induced depression, are often compounded by problems induced by the conditions of refugee camps and the homesickness resulting from the realization that there is no home to ever return to. 

Mental health concerns within these displaced communities include stress about one’s home country, isolation from support structures, and loss of personal identity and agency. These consequences are worsened by the daily stresses of displacement and life within camps, including lingering risks of violence and uncertainty about the future. Women and girls in camps live in constant fear of trafficking and sexual violence.

Social Media Relief

The advent of social media has provided  a little relief to some of these displaced populations by making it possible for some of them to get in touch with a few of their relatives and friends scattered around the world as well as to closely follow developments taking place back home, but these virtual experiences can never be enough of a substitute for in-person visits and hearty family get-togethers.

According to various researches, social media has become a vital bridge to home, linking displaced people around the world. These platforms have become an indispensable source of information for uprooted communities, especially as they are relatively cheap and easily accessible to them.

Worrisome Increase

What is worrisome is the continued increase in the global population of forcibly displaced people. That number has nearly doubled in the decade between 2009 and 2019 from 43.3 million to just over 80 million. Most of this increase has been attributed to the ongoing conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and Myanmar. More worrisome is the expectation that the effects of climate change which are already baked into the system will dramatically increase the number of refugees as more and more people are forced to move. The end result is that we should expect a rise in homesickness for more people than before.

Featured Image A boy plays a guitar in the evening inside Tongogara Refugee camp in Zimbabwe as he entertains other refugees with music from their home country. Credit Author

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