In Tanzania, A Refugee Gives Back

When refugees approach Asylum Access Tanzania (AATZ), they might meet Nondo Nobel Bwami, AATZ Refugee Fellow and an important part of AATZ’s legal services team in Dar es Salaam.

“When people see and meet Nondo, they know that Asylum Access is not here to harm them – that we are here to help them,” explains Volunteer Legal Advocate Mwajabu Khalid. A refugee himself, Nondo helps us gain refugees’ trust and confidence, and helps us better understand their needs and experiences.

As urban refugees in Tanzania are often unwilling to seek help for fear of being sent to refugee camps, Nondo plays a critical role at AATZ. Since he joined AATZ in April 2011, he has encouraged refugees to seek legal assistance to address their daily challenges and rights violations. Recently, Nondo worked with a colleague to develop a community outreach plan, which led to the launch of AATZ’s first mobile legal clinic to bring refugee legal aid directly to communities beyond our office in July.

At that clinic, Khalid recalls, Nondo again demonstrated why he has proven so valuable. Most of AATZ’s clients are Congolese and speak Swahili, Khalid notes, but this doesn’t mean that even a native Swahili speaker like her can’t use an occasional hand to communicate with refugees. “Tanzanian Swahili is different from the Swahili spoken by our clients,” Khalid says, “they combine Swahili with Lingala or French.” While Khalid often interprets for fellow Volunteer Legal Advocates (VLAs), many refugees prefer Nondo’s assistance. “His Swahili is more like ours,” they said.

“It’s important to have a refugee fellow here because it means that a member of the community is working with us,” stresses Asnath Barnabas, AATZ’s Legal Services Coordinator. Besides working with clients, Nondo also works on translating documents, instructing AATZ staff on country of origin conditions, organizing legal orientation trainings and helping new VLAs navigate Dar es Salaam.

Born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nondo arrived in Tanzania in 1996 when war in the Fizi District forced him to flee for safety. After graduating from high school and working as a teacher at Nyarugusu Refugee Camp, Nondo became one of the few refugees in Tanzania awarded a German scholarship to study in Dar es Salaam. He earned a degree in Human Resources Management at the Institute of Social  Work in Dar es Salaam. When he learnt that AATZ was looking for a Refugee Fellow—initially to work with AATZ to help refugee families reunify—he eagerly applied.

“I like the idea of serving for my fellow refugees,” he says. “As the son of a refugee family, I understand the sorrow that touches people when they separate from their loved ones.” Moreover, as Nondo describes, “I also wanted to contribute my efforts in achieving refugee rights that are being prevented or being hindered by some people or by some existing rules and regulations… we have some challenges, but we are striving to solve our clients’ problems.”

Working with a team of VLAs which includes both local and foreign lawyers was one of the main draws of working with AATZ, “I wanted to broaden my experience working with people – especially in terms of cross-cultural experience.” According to Nondo, he’s also had more of a chance to see through the eyes of other refugees. Last year, when he had to obtain a new permit to work with Asylum Access, he had to leave Dar es Salaam, return to Nyarugusu Camp, apply for new permission to leave and then wait to see if he would be granted a work permit. “It really makes me understand how hard refugee life is,” he recalls.

Still, Nondo believes that the challenges are worth it. In May, a prospective Asylum Access partner invited Nondo to Nairobi for training.  Nondo almost didn’t make it. His visa, which was processed differently from ordinary travelers, didn’t arrive until the morning before the training began. “I was travelling the night before the training began,” he remembers. “I will never forget how AATZ Country Director Janemary Ruhundwa and Administrative Assistant Rashid Nyembo processed my ticket so quickly.”

But Nondo’s journey doesn’t end with Asylum Access. He has been accepted to two Masters programs and hopes to further his studies in human resources management, economics or human rights. Although he hasn’t raised the funds to attend yet, he hopes to have this opportunity soon.

Written by Georgetown University Law Fellow and Volunteer Legal Advocate,
Christian Pangilinan