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22 years old
Team Leader for Inspirational Stories
Biography collected and written by Asa Sutton

A letter to a young refugee, from a young refugee” by Divine Irakoze
Dear Mr. President: a letter from a young refugee to the President of Malawi” by Divine Irakoze

Divine Irakoze

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When it comes to how Divine and her family came to be living in the Dzaleka refugee camp, things are complicated. Her parents don’t talk much about it to her— only short bits and pieces, here and there, enough to make her not feel the need to push things any further. She knows that her parents left Burundi in 1994 for Tanzania. But even this wasn’t enough to bring them peace and security, and they were forced to flee again, arriving in Malawi in 2004.

For Divine, these past events matter a great deal less than the present— and more so, the future. Born in a refugee camp in Tanzania and having lived her whole life in refugee camps until just a few months ago, she has learned from her very earliest memories that the word “refugee” is a much bigger box than just where people have fled from or why. She has seen with her own eyes that for expatriated Burundians, Tanzanians, Congolese, and countless others, the harsh realities of life in Dzaleka have no preference or particular sympathy.

Of course, even this simple understanding doesn’t present the full truth. Dzaleka is like a prison in all but name to the people who live there, and there is no national origin that lessens that burden. And by no means does everyone’s search for safety from conflict and violence end when they pass through the gates. Divine’s own parents, despite having left Burundi nearly three decades ago, still experience danger and tension in the camp; troubles of tribal relations and other problems don’t merely disappear. Every day, old conflicts threaten to start all over again. In this way and so many others, in Divine’s mind, and through her eyes, Dzaleka is a “camp” in name only; she thinks of and sees this place as it truly is for so many of the people living there: a nightmare.

The pain of her fellow refugees, pain that she’s watched unfolding over and over through her entire life, breaks her heart, and for a long time she didn’t know what she could do to help. Eventually, she decided to dedicate herself to pursuing advocacy for the rights of refugees— particularly women and young people. In her mid-teenage years she graduated from the Young African Leader Initiative, and has been pushing ahead strongly ever since. She knows that she can’t expect change immediately— not today, and maybe not even tomorrow— but if she keeps working and pushing and speaking out on behalf of refugee populations all over the world, eventually, bit by bit, things will change. Divine’s dream is to see refugees living a normal life like anybody else in their host countries: enjoying equal opportunities, equal access to food and education, and life without limitations imposed simply on account of refugee status; refugees getting the love and respect they deserve as real, full people, as opposed to merely being seen as problems or pity-cases or political objects.

In 2022, Divine was accepted to Brigham Young University, Idaho in the United States. Her feelings were mixed when she received the news. On the one hand, obviously, she was filled with a powerful excitement: this was a life-changing opportunity, a chance unlike any other. She knew that if she took the offer and traveled to the U.S., her world would never be the same. She dreamed that her life as a refugee would become her past; she would walk through an open door towards so many of the things she had spent her whole life wishing for: a better education, a chance to achieve her dreams, a future outside the camp, unconstrained. If she stayed where she was in Dzaleka, all these things would only ever remain dreams.

On the other hand, the news also filled Divine with worry. Going to the United States meant leaving her family, her friends, and her community behind. She wished she could have simply taken them all with her. She knew that her life would change if she left— she would get all those things she had wanted, she would be happy, surely. But would she really be happy, knowing that her family and friends were all back in Malawi, still suffering in exactly the same situation she had gotten so lucky to escape? She worried, and still worries, about her family. Up until that point, she had always been able to stand alongside them when they were having a problem, or losing themselves in a conflict. But now, if she left, they would be struggling alone, and the thought of it broke her heart. In her larger community as well, she would be abandoning many important advocacy projects by leaving, and this broke her heart as well. She has a youth project that helps support the most vulnerable people in the community, but now her worry was, who would take care of her community in her place? She found herself feeling selfish, even for wanting to go.

Coming to the United States was one of the hardest decisions she has ever had to make. But in the end, she knew that it was what she needed to do. Getting a degree from a university in the United States would mean getting a powerful tool for her life, and building powerful connections that would allow her to one day advocate for refugees not just locally, but on the world stage— to speak and be truly heard. Leaving was painful, and that pain has not faded with time, but it was also the best way for Divine to help her community get the recognition and respect that it deserves.

Divine moved to Rexburg, Idaho in September, 2022 to attend college. For Divine, the differences between the United States and Malawi are stark and at times even shocking. So long as she keeps her documents with her and has the money she needs, Divine can travel freely throughout the country. She can go anywhere, from state to state, shop anywhere, and work on her college campus— whereas in Malawi, refugees are mostly confined to the camp, and remain jobless for life. The government of Malawi has an encampment policy that restricts refugees from certain rights such as accessing tertiary education and formal employment. In Malawi, even if she had the money, she could not travel freely, requiring special justification and permissions to even leave the camp, let alone travel from city to city.

Her studies have been engaging; Divine hopes to achieve a degree in International Relations. She has become increasingly fascinated with the interconnected nature of the international system— how every action taken by any given country is intimately related to the actions of other countries. This is extremely important for more accurately understanding and expressing— and thus, more effectively advocating for—the situations of refugees around the globe.

Despite these positive improvements, there are also many things about her old life that Divine dearly misses— first and foremost being her family. Divine is the ninth child born to her parents, and has eleven siblings—seven brothers and four sisters, most of whom are older than her. Life in the United States, away from her family, is much quieter than what she had become used to; much lonelier. She has found that it is not as easy for her to eat meals on her own. She had spent her whole life always eating in groups, and finds it strange to try and make food for only one person. Back in Dzaleka, during group meals, her family would always push her to eat, even when she didn’t have much of an appetite. In the United States, there is no one to push her but herself. She misses the food itself, especially nsima— a dish made with corn flour. She knows how to cook it, but hasn’t found many occasions to do so.

She’s done her best to make friends, but it’s been difficult. When she interacts with other people, she quickly realizes that she’s the only person with her sort of experience—the only person in the group from a refugee camp. She often feels isolated, and different. Phone calls and texts with friends and family back in Dzaleka help her get through the day, but her deepest hope is that she will begin to connect with people in the United States, and build a new sense of home here—a home which, someday, she hopes she will be able to make her own, permanently, and where the rest of the beloved people in her life will come to live as well.

Divine does not consider herself an artist and so is an outlier for this project. Though in the past she has pursued poetry as an art, life in the camp combined with her experiences made that difficult and made her feel like it wasn’t her field (place) and so she no longer pursues it. She has however, written two articles telling about life in the refugee camp and what she thinks that can be done to improve refugees’ lives. These articles can be found at “Missing Perspectives or at Refugee stories website” You can as well read her story and more of the youth project back in Dzaleka at “Tell A Story Foundation-Uganda” She also wrote “Living as a Refugee in Malawi” for this website. Divine hopes to release another article soon that tells about Refugees and their global representation. Meaning to say, how are refugees being represented in other countries, how do people define and see them? She is so excited about it and she hopes that it will bring awareness to people of how best they can treat refugees or have a different perspective towards them. Her strength and determination is inspiring, she offered to collect and write inspirational stories to add to this project.