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Returning refugees rebuild their lives

A country ravaged by the devastating effects of war, Burundi is still very much in mourning. With an estimated 300,000 people who lost their lives and more than a million refugees or internally displaced people, a significant amount still needs to be done to bring healing to the nation.

Over the past couple of years, families in the region have been encouraged by refugee organizations and governments to return to their country of birth. However, what they find upon their return leaves much to be desired.

Located in the southernmost province bordering Tanzania and Lake Tanganyika, Makamba was one of the most affected provinces during the Burundi conflict. World Relief has been operational in Makamba’s hard-hit Nyanza-Lac community since 2004. Shelter is an expressed need for returned refugees and internally displaced populations affected by the violence in Burundi, and the partnership between World Relief and Habitat for Humanity is instrumental in assisting community resettlement. This is not the first time that these organizations have worked together. In Rwanda Habitat for Humanity has a partnership with URWEGO — an emerging Rwandan microfinance institution operated through World Relief — and in Sierra Leone Habitat and World Relief have built homes for more than 800 returned refugees.

The aim is to build 750 houses which will directly support 4,500 beneficiaries in the Nyanza-Lac community. Thus far, World Relief has built hundreds of houses with a significant amount of families having benefited from the project. Sylvia and her family are one of these families.

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Sylvia stands outside her home with two of her young children

Sylvia is a young mother who provides for three young children ages 8, 3 and 7 months old. In the 1990s, when the fighting in Burundi was intense, she and her family were forced to flee to different provinces. Just as they settled into their new communities, they were often forced to run again as violence and destruction approached. After all that uncertainty, in 2002 Sylvia and her family were finally able to return to Nyanza-Lac. Upon their return, they found that their home had been burned to the ground and all their possessions were gone. The land they had spent years cultivating bore the burden of war and destruction. Even with no possessions, no crops and no home, Sylvia and her family were determined to restart their lives in their home community.

The family’s temporary “home” was in very poor condition, and with every heavy rain the roof would collapse. World Relief, working closely with the local village officials, was directed to Sylvia’s family in 2006. Through the Habitat for Humanity-World Relief partnership, Sylvia was provided roofing materials, windows and doors. Sylvia and her family, like hundreds of others participating in the program, were able to contribute sweat equity to use these materials to build their new house. Sylvia was grateful for the opportunity to get a “hand up” in order to have a decent home for her family. She expressed her gratitude, saying: “Now we are safe; the iron roof keeps the wind and rain from harming the children.”

Like Sylvia, most of the returning refugee families from Nyanza-Lac are subsistence farmers, depending largely on crops they grow to support their families. Without the support of World Relief and Habitat for Humanity to help rebuild their lives, it would have been impossible for Sylvia and others like her in Burundi to afford the construction materials needed to rebuild their homes and their lives.