Aziza Aims for the Runway
In Southern Chad, refugees from the Central African Republic pass their time hoping for a peaceful future.
“I went out to get bread because we were running out of food. My family stayed in the house where we had been hiding from the violence around us.“ Aziza’s 17-year-old face shows no sign of emotion at first when she recounts the day that changed her life in the most atrocious way imaginable. The young woman lived in the Central African Republic’s capital Bangui with her parents, sisters and brothers.
Since the government in Bangui was overthrown in early 2013, widespread insecurity and sectarian violence have uprooted over 487,000 people within the country and caused almost 420,000 people to cross the borders and seek refuge in neighboring states. In late 2013, the United Nations declared the Central African Republic crisis a “level 3” emergency, putting it in the highest category of humanitarian needs.
When Aziza returned home with a supply of bread, neighbors stopped her from entering her street. She didn’t understand at first, but then, slowly, the horror dawned upon her; the house that she called home had been attacked. Every member of her family had been murdered: her mother, her father, four sisters and two brothers. No one had been spared. When asked whether she was able to bury her loved ones, Aziza breaks down in tears. Fate can be brutal and reckless this way. One moment you go out and buy bread, the next moment you are the only one of your family left alive. The young woman fled to a nearby mosque and was eventually evacuated to the Chadian capital of N’Djamena in early 2014.
Roughly 95,000 refugees have sought shelter in neighboring Chad, most of them close to the border in the Southern part of the country. More than 22,600 people are sheltered here, dependent on the United Nations and organizations like CARE to provide assistance. Some of these services are called “protection,” the technical term for all measures that aim to help those who are most vulnerable: single mothers, the elderly and children without parents.
When Aziza arrived in Dosseye, CARE staffers identified her as an unaccompanied minor and helped her to settle in. She received a blanket, mattress, a bucket and other household items as well as money to pay for school. She is also eligible to receive a hygiene kit containing sanitary pads and other items catered for women. Unfortunately, due to limited funding, these kits are now only distributed every six months instead of every three months.
Aziza is standing on the grounds of a type of kindergarten managed by CARE. These child-friendly spaces are meant to give children age zero to five, a safe environment to play, to interact and to develop their small minds. The children are also served a simple meal of beans or other food, thus being encouraged to attend regularly. The chalkboard notes that today, 52 boys and 37 girls are in attendance. On average 250 children come here regularly, but school hasn’t started yet and so the grounds are also a place for older children and teenagers to spend their days.
Aziza has started a dance group for girls from age three to 13. “When I dance, I forget everything”, she explains and finally a timid smile finds its way back on her face. But there is one thing she doesn’t want to forget: “All I think about is my education.” Aziza tried to obtain her high school diploma in a Chadian school this year but due to different curricula and her still being heavily shaken from the flight, the 17-year-old did not pass. She is adamant that she will try again next year. “I wake up in the morning and think of my family, but I also think about school. I pray. I do my household chores. When there is food, I eat. When there isn’t, I don’t.”
Aziza has found ways to occupy her mind and to pass her time in this camp. And she has found friends: 17-year-old fellow girl Chamsir and Daoud, a boy their age. “We hang out and talk.” Chamsir wants to become a saleswoman; she is already selling grilled meat in the camp when she finds money to buy it. Aziza, however, has other plans: She wants to become a fashion designer. Proudly beaming, she hands us a piece of paper with a drawing. “mode africaine”, African fashion, it says in French and Aziza has drawn a purple and orange top with beaded applications on the neckline. “You can wear this with a skirt or with pants”, she says.
Will her designs be featured on international runways one day? Or will Aziza simply lead a humble life in Chad or one day return to the country where the memories of her family lie buried? Who knows. It might not even matter. All that matters is that she has found a way to look forward, to make plans, and to contribute to her community. Surely, her parents would be more than proud of her.
Written by Sabine Wilke, CARE Germany