Durban, South Africa – Less than three years after reuniting with her husband in South Africa, following the political violence that forced their flight from Rwanda in 1999 and the subsequent disintegration of her family, 29 year old Chantal Uwamahoro was once again forced to bid him farewell but for the last time as he battled an illness that would eventually take his life.
“He encouraged me to pursue my studies so that our children would have a better life than we had,” she recalls. “He also told me that if life became too difficult in a foreign country, to return to Rwanda where there would always be family to look after us.”
The young widow who had acquired a nursing diploma in Rwanda took her husband’s advice to heart vowing never to return home because she had failed to raise their children but because it was safe for them to do so.
“Failing was not an option.”
It was after she had sought refuge in a camp in Tanzania in 1999 that Uwamahoro learnt that her husband had not perished in the fighting that had forced their separation and flight from Rwanda but that he had travelled to South Africa. With great relief and her toddling daughter in tow, Chantal proceeded southwards where the family was reunited.
“He found me a job as a car-guard almost immediately,” she remembers.
South Africa has a non-encampment policy which means that refugees and asylum seekers have the possibility to pursue income-generating activities to pay for their accommodation and food.
As a refugee woman with a small child and the job she had, Uwamahoro soon realized that many more refugee women faced the dilemma she had. What to do with a child while out working long and irregular hours? Crèches and child-friendly centres were readily available but they came at a price she and her refugee counterparts could not afford.
“As a car-guard, I was lucky to make on average 2 USD (R30) a day from which I could buy bread, milk and a little protein. I just could not afford to enroll my daughter in the surrounding crèches from that kind of money.”
After several productive meetings with UNHCR’s former social assistance NGO partner the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), Uwamahoro became a founder member of the Union of Refugee Women, an organization that set up the Children Care Centre Crèche in 2003 providing a safe and nurturing place for refugee and South African children alike. Educational support and psycho-social assistance is equally readily available. It is a setting Uwamahoro where she could confidently leave her children.
With her children safely at the Crèche, Uwamahoro knew she had to work on pursuing her studies particularly as South Africa’s Nursing Council had all but rejected her nursing diploma from back home.
“If I wanted to earn a good living I had to begin my nursing studies all over again and in 2003, I applied to the University of KwaZulu Natal (UKZN) where in spite of not having the fees to pay for tuition, I was accepted and I registered.
Like many refugees, Uwamahoro applied for a student loan from the institution, not knowing how she would pay it back.
“Getting started was what was important and hopefully along the way, I would search for and secure a scholarship for the next academic year, on the internet.”
Through the MCC, Uwamahoro applied for financial assistance through the DAFI Scholarship Programme which she was fortunate to qualify for, for the 2004 academic year.
The Albert Einstein German Academic Refugee Initiative Fund, commonly known by its German acronym DAFI, has provided scholarships for refugees at universities,colleges and polytechnic institutions since 1992. Funding for this programme is provided by the German government. Twenty-five years since the programme began, over 10,000 refugee students around the world have been assisted to earn degrees.
“After securing the scholarship, I promised my husband that I would not lose it because of poor performance. I would keep my promise to him and make him proud of my achievement.”
Uwamahoro was as good as her word. She buckled down and made her studies an integral part of her life.
“I did not give the DAFI Administrators cause to complain because I studied hard, submitted my results in a timely manner and never failed a single subject. I was single minded in achieving a Bachelor’s degree in Nursing.”
A single parent now with two active children, Uwamahoro continued to rely on the Union of Refugee Women for emotional and psycho-social support, while she continued to work as a car-guard in the streets of Durban.
While DAFI covered her tuition fees and related academic expenses which gave Uwamahoro the peace of mind to focus on her studies she continued to work as a car-guard. She also had to deal with the grief related to the loss of her husband.
“The proceeds from that was what kept a roof over our heads and food on our table, however it is DAFI that helped me to make it. I cannot thank them enough for being my financial backer in the completion of my nursing degree.”
Uwamahoro re-married in 2006. With the help of her new husband and DAFI by her side, she left her job as a car-guard soon after her marriage and graduated with a Bachelor of Nursing in 2007.
Today, she is gainfully employed as a nurse and midwife at Addington Hospital’s maternity ward in the coastal city of Durban.
A strong willed, positive and focussed woman Uwamahoro’s advice to women who find themselves in her situation is to surround oneself with like-minded people.
“Have goals, ambition and the determination to achieve your aspirations,” she says. “Don’t be shy to ask for help – financial or otherwise – like I did.”