We are a compassionate city. Not only has Norwich been an international City of Refuge for writers since 2007, it has provided housing, education and employment opportunities for refugees from The Middle East and Africa through The Gateway Protection Programme. This scheme is a government initiative that the UK signed up to in 2004. Gateway provides support to refugees seeking safety from war, and Norwich has since become home to families and individuals from the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country where conflict has displaced almost half a million people across the world. John Kasensa has made a new life for himself in Norwich. A Congolese national, he arrived in England form a refugee camp in Zambia with little English. He is now studying for a degree in Social Policy and Criminology with the Open University and has dreams of one day working for the United Nations.
“Basically, now I’m British,” Kasensa said. “But I was born in the Congo. I grew up in Zambia and I came here in 2007 through the Gateway Protection Programme.”
He said it was difficult when he first arrived because there weren’t many Africans in Norwich. He could speak French and other Congolese languages, though. “Luckily, at the Gateway we had people who could speak our language. I had a support worker for that particular time to support me with everything – shopping college, because I couldn’t understand the money,” Kasensa said. “At the time and it was really hard.”
We are told stories of war as it’s happening, but the aftermath gets little coverage For most of us in the UK, the reality of life on refugee camps are limited to brief BBC news reports. Rarely do we hear about the day-to-day hardships that people face: the boredom of sitting around waiting for life to start again, the monotony of the same meal every day. Nor do we fully understand the huge tasks that organisations like the Red Cross and United Nations have in feeding and housing thousands of people in an emergency. John experienced all of this when he was just a teenager.
“There was a war in the Congo. You had no choice you have to run away because of bombing and so we ended up crossing the border to Zambia. You’d be located somewhere like in a bush,” Kasensa said. “And they’d just be like, ‘This is where you’re gonna live.’”
Refugee camps are uncomfortable, problematic places to live, often located in uncultivated areas where there is space for large concentrations of people. In central Africa there is plenty of it. But this means refugee communities are often isolated, away from towns and infrastructure. It’s like being stranded on an island.
“There’s no houses. Only trees and beds. And you realize you’re gonna live there,” Kasensa said. “They say you have no choice and they bring a tent and you have to make a tent so you’ll be living under tent. And you know in Africa; when it’s hot it’s hot.”
I asked John to share a song that was important to him, he chose Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me by Elton John. He told me it reminds him of arriving on the refugee camp after leaving his home. Although he lost his loved ones, his family, he realised he wasn’t alone in, and that there were people there who could take care of him.
“The UN they are a very helpful organisation you know they always respond on the first day,” Kasensa said. “They provide food but you don’t have choice; they give you whatever they’ve got. If it’s beans, you eat beans if it’s rice. Just take it.”
Kasensa really values his education, and will soon be graduating with a degree. He is highly self-motivated. Many people who have been refugees have had big gaps in education due to limited resources on the camps.
“There is no school on the refugee camp, there is nobody. Teachers are there but nobody is going to pay them. It’s up to you to organise everything. It takes maybe two years before they sort out schooling and things,” Kasensa said. “It’s just under the tent but if a teacher is teaching you you are learning.”
Kasensa would one day like to work for an organisation like the U.N, using his knowledge of migration, refugee issues and the skills he has learned with his degree in Social Policy and Criminology. One thing he has noticed since living in the UK, is how dependent we are on money—for travel, housing and food. In parts of Africa, these aspects of living are often easier to come by: there will always be someone who will share their food with you or give you a ride—a neighbour or friend. And property is not always owned by the bank.
“Sometimes in Africa people have got their own houses and their own farm where at least they can eat without using any money,” Kasensa said.
It’s true that the UK has a different set of problems than some African countries: our busy cities rarely leave us space to think and enjoy the small things in life. But as far as cities go, Norwich is pretty chilled out, and John thinks so too.
“I really feel happy to be here to be honest because I feel safe and Norwich really is safer than any other place I would say,” Kasensa said. “I’ve never lived other places, but whenever I watch the news, I just see I’m so lucky to be in Norwich.”
It’s important to listen to other people’s stories: they make us more empathic as humans. Other people’s narratives shape how we make sense of our own lives, and help us look outwards into the world we live in instead on inwards. Some stories like John’s are hard to hear, but knowing that Norwich has played such a significant part in his journey should be celebrated. Norwich, we hope, will continue to grow in its diversity, and become an even more compassionate city.
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