Refugees in Tanzania

Unwavering Resilience

“I’m asking you to help me. I’m not just asking for fish, but for you to teach me how to fish.”

It’s a weekday afternoon on the outskirts of Tanzania’s bustling capital city, Dar es Salaam. Samuel, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo and middle-aged father of 10, greets a host of visitors at his front door – actually a tarp hung as a curtain – amidst a torrential downpour.

He energetically assembles chairs and even buckets to seat his guests who gather around a small coffee table cluttered with books, documents and teaching materials. His home consists of two small rooms attached to somebody else’s house. Notably absent are his wife and ten children.

“Living without your family is like living with punishment.”

Samuel speaks articulately, indicative of his education and years of professional experience as a teacher and local government administrator. He intermittently adjusts his glasses, taking them on and off between literary quotes and aphorisms. Samuel shares with us the challenges he and his family have faced as refugees and his dream of providing his children with an education.

In 1996, Samuel, his wife and children fled their home to find safety in neighboring Tanzania. Required by Tanzanian law to live in a refugee camp, they remained there in perpetual limbo, and in conditions tantamount to abject poverty. After fourteen years Samuel left the camp in search of opportunities in Dar es Salaam hundreds of miles away. He intended to send for his wife and children once he became established.

In Dar es Salaam, his friends told him about Asylum Access. We helped Samuel acquire a special residency permit that would allow him to stay in the city and work. He’s now employed as a language teacher, albeit for a low salary that barely affords him his living space.

“Me, I didn’t have a permit. I needed a permit, followed your guidance (Asylum Access), and I got it. Everybody’s now coming to me for help.”

Refugees seldom find apartments they can rent, let alone work outside of refugee camps. Those who do live outside of camps often live in hiding on urban margins and in constant fear that they’ll have to return to a refugee camp or their home country. By speaking Swahili, Samuel can more easily pass as Tanzanian.

“Immigration officials arrived at the school. I was teaching. They have taken other teachers who were there. I was spared.”

The precariousness of his situation as a refugee living in Dar es Salaam, coupled with his desire to provide his children with the resources and tools necessary to get a university education, have pushed Samuel to become an active participant in Asylum Access facilitated Democratic Collective Action groups (DCA).

“With this salary I can’t even satisfy myself. My children have already finished high school, but what next? What future? How will my children pursue university studies? I have no other inheritance I can give them. Only education.”

As Samuel tells his story, it becomes clear that what pains him most is that he is an educated person, a teacher and a community activist that is unable to provide his children with what he values most – a quality education. That’s why he is working diligently with the DCAs to learn about refugees’ needs and address the barriers that prevent families from rebuilding their lives.

Samuel is thankful for Asylum Access’s services, but continuously emphasizes how much more work needs to be done to help refugees. While at his home, he repeatedly alludes to the idea that even when refugees are out of camps, it is virtually impossible to make enough money to support other family members.

“Refugees have no access to bank accounts. People need bank loans, but how if you don’t even have a bank account? We are not even allowed to have SIM cards. We do not know why.”

Asylum Access challenges these barriers by helping refugees access documents they need to live and work outside of camps. Through the DCA group, Samuel is fighting to help other refugees access these resources and continues to search for ways to send his children to university.

“I am interested in politics. Before politics get interested in me, I need to get involved in politics. Without these seminars and workshops we wouldn’t have been able to organize ourselves as a community of refugees.”

As our group exits Samuel’s home, the rain has subsided to a blue sky and the significance of supporting refugees like Samuel becomes increasingly clear. Refugees are talented, capable people. Empowering one refugee like Samuel can unleash the passion and dedication to bring entire families and communities with him to a place of greater security.


To protect the privacy of our refugee partners, photographs and names have been changed in this story.