This post was written by Chloë Straw, Project Research Assistant with additional content from Joselyne Niyizigama John, President and Founder of the Dzaleka Project.
What does education mean to you? For Joselyne Niyizigama John, a fourth year Health Sciences student at Simon Fraser University, education means one essential thing: freedom. A native of Burundi in East Central Africa, Joselyne was forced to flee from her home at the same age that most children enter the first grade. She and her family of twelve would spend the next fourteen years in refugee camps, first in Tanzania and then Malawi, while a civil war raged in Burundi.
“When you are in the camps, all you can think about is how you can’t go anywhere”, she explains. Despite working hard to complete her primary and secondary schooling while in the refugee camps, Joselyne grew up knowing that her prospects for further education were limited if she were to remain in the camp.
“Refugees living in the camps have three options”, she says, “they can live in the camp and forget about exploring other parts of the country; they can go back to their country of origin; or they can be sponsored by a community or a country that is willing to commit to making a difference in their lives.”
For Joselyne, the third option became her reality. Successful completion of secondary school, in which she earned exceptional grades, and a year of competitive exams and interviews culminated in a two-year scholarship to Simon Fraser University provided by the World University Service of Canada. Taking full advantage of the opportunity for higher education, Joselyne completed a certificate in leadership, which she quickly put to work in forming the Dzaleka Project Club . Named after the camp that she lived in for six years in Malawi, the Dzaleka project is a student group that aims to raise funds and bring awareness to refugee issues.
“I love to do actions that inspire others to do more, dream more and become more. I am grateful for the ability to inspire with knowledge and empower though opportunities that education facilitates”, she says. “I have a strong desire to make a positive difference in the lives of others.”
One can be sure that while Joselyne is busy speaking about the lack of rights for people living in refugee camps or explaining how quickly a family’s monthly food ration runs out, concern for her own family back in the Dzaleka camp remains front of mind. At a time when the Malawian government is considering a forced repatriation of all refugees, members of the camp desperately seek a way to support their own survival. “When the monthly rations of food run out too early, it becomes a struggle to survive until the next distribution”, she says, “my father is not even allowed to work. I received terrifying news recently that he was arrested because he was found in town trying to search for a job.”
Speaking to the impossible task of balancing her concern for her family with the pressing demands of her studies, work and community leadership role, Joselyne touches on the conundrum that many members of the diaspora experience. “It is a struggle for identity”, as she describes it, “but education is reality changing.” Thinking back to only a few years ago, when her days were spent lugging heavy buckets of water and questioning her future, Joselyne describes how the last two years have been a transformative experience for her. “The World University Service of Canada has given me a chance for an education and privilege to regain my freedom and discover opportunities to empower others”, she says. “The challenge remains, however, of bridging the gap between my past and present to determine my true identity. I am building a connection to my country”, she says, “I hope to return one day to meet it.”