Stories for Human Rights and Social Inclusion
Human Rights

Refugees using social media to tell their own stories

By Mubatsi Asinja Habati

For a long time, journalists have been at the forefront of championing human rights. They highlight the plight of refugees fleeing violence. They speak for the more vulnerable in society, including women, children, and persons with disabilities.

But with the advent of the internet and specifically social media, these groups of people are increasingly taking the power to tell their own stories into their hands: To defend their rights, to speak out against injustice, to highlight their dreams and aspirations, and to connect with the rest of the world.

Intrinsically, young refugees have harnessed the power of new media to tell stories that often don’t get covered by mainstream media. From the Rohingya refugee settlement in Bangladesh to Bidibidi refugee camp in Uganda, young refugees such as James Malish and Nur Sadek are using social media to raise the voices of fellow refugees, and allow them to speak for themselves. What James and Nur have in common is the hope that refugees too can experience a better life if the challenges they face are addressed.

They believe that sharing their stories and experiences will eventually contribute to social change. And it is this kind of belief that inspires Nur. Malish gets sad seeing refugees going hungry, lacking basic needs of life and more so, refugees with disabilities. Indeed, through their online work, a number of refugees have been helped with basic day-to-day needs.

Refugees go through a lot. From seeing their loved ones killed, fleeing their homeland, losing property, trekking long distances in search of a safe space, and contending with life in unfamiliar, often harsh environments. Theirs is a difficult life to live. In recent months, the outbreak of COVID-19 has made the lives of refugees even harder as aid agencies are limping to raise funds to support humanitarian activities in various settlements.

And therefore, in such times it has fallen on refugees like Muvuya Kasereka, Nur and Malish to speak on behalf of the rest. Kasereka is a Congolese refugee living in Kampala city. He has turned to human rights activism to defend and promote the rights of refugees. Through the Urban Refugee Rights Programme of which he is one of the founding members, Kasereka is empowering refugees to claim their rights, collaborating with other local human rights organisations to take refugees’ rights into account in their programmes and educate the refugees of the host country’s legal systems as well as supporting free legal services to those who find themselves on the wrong side of the law.

Through poetry, Nur hopes to tell the rest of the world what it means to live as a refugee. Nur is a young Rohingya refugee in Bangladesh who is using the power of poetry on his Facebook page to speak to the world about the challenges the Rohingya refugees are facing in the midst of COVID-19. The Rohingya, an ethnic minority group in Myanmar have been experiencing violence for years.

“Poetry gives me hope that I will return to my homeland with dignity and peace,” says Nur. He believes that Covid-19 has made the internet become a “fundamental” part of life—just like food. “I would like to request the Bangladesh government to provide refugees with internet access so that they are able to access Covid-19 information.”

Nur Sadek is a young Rohingya refugee who uses poetry to highlight the lives of fellow refugees in Bangladesh)

Covid-19 has also made life for refugees more difficult as aid agencies are struggling to raise funds to support them. Social distancing is one of the mechanisms of preventing Covid-19 infections is harder to implement in refugee settlements, which are often crowded.

In Bidibidi refugee settlement in Northern Uganda, which is the world’s second-largest refugee camp, Malish, who hails from South Sudan is using his Facebook page, Daily Refugee Stories to document everyday life, but also highlight the plight of refugees living with disabilities in the settlements.

Malish has been a refugee twice. He first fled Sudan for the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) as a child in the 1990s when the Sudanese People Liberation Movement led by John Garang fought with the Khartoum Government. There, he lived until 2003, before moving to Uganda. When South Sudan gained independence, he returned to his country. But by 2013, war had broken out in the country, forcing Malish to once again flee. He returned to Uganda in 2015, ending up in the Bidibidi refugee camp.

It was from here that he trained under the UN World Food Programme as a refugee storyteller. Armed with this training and knowledge, and a small smartphone, Malish takes still and motion photos that capture everyday life in the camp.

And indeed, a number of his stories have changed the lives of his fellow refugees for the better. One such story, says Malish, was when he posted about a visually impaired 68-year-old refugee who had run out of food and was struggling to provide for four young grandchildren under her care. Her grandchildren were crying for food. This was during the recent COVID-19 lockdown imposed by the government of Uganda. Malish felt touched by this lady and decided to share her story on social media.

A few days later, some of those who read Malish’s Facebook post, came in to help the woman with food.

“When the well-wishers came on the ground and found that it was a true story, they bought for her household items like soap, sugar, and food. I felt happy that she had been helped. I feel proud that my voice was heard through my Facebook posts,” says Malish.

Running out food among refugees has been a common phenomenon during the lockdown.

Every month, refugees are given food rations including eight kilogrammes of maize flour per head in a household. This food is supposed to last for a month. If it gets finished before the end of the month, a refugee has to find their own ways of getting food until the next distribution.

It is the desire to change the lives of persons like the case of the old woman, that pushes Malish to walk long distances along the hundreds of square kilometers of Bidibidi refugee camp to document daily life.

“Bidibidi refugee camp is too big to report on each of its parts,” Malish says, adding: “There are stories which are uncovered by the big media houses, I want to do these kinds of stories. I want to be the voice for the voiceless refugees. I want social change.”

Although net activism has helped the trio highlight the plight of refugees, it is not without challenges. Malish and Nur say access to and slow internet connection, which is often 2G, is slowing their work. Malish uses his simple smartphone to take photos, shoot short videos, and write stories. Sometimes when his phone’s memory gets full, he is forced to delete some photos and videos as he has no computer or disk drive to archive them for future reference or use. He says sometimes when he has no money to buy internet data, he simply takes photos and videos and then waits for the time he has money to access the internet. Another hurdle is he faces is the daily Over the Top (OTT) tax that Uganda has imposed for users to access certain social media sites, including Facebook and Twitter.

On the other hand, Nur, the young Rohingya refugee and poet is constrained by slow internet and access in the camps. “In the camp, we don’t have 4G network, which makes it a bit difficult to use the internet effectively,” explains Nur. Because the Rohingya camp in Bangladesh has no schools, Nur argues that many young people use the internet and social media to learn.

But despite these challenges, Nur is not discouraged from playing his role as a voice for the community.

He says he will continue to speak for all refugees who face the same problem as he does.

Nur says his poem titled “Dear World and People, it’s time to fight by staying inside” posted on his Facebook page is inspiring many people to abide by Covid-19 safety measures.

For now, Kasereka, Malish and Nur continue to push for a better refugee life in their own capacities in spite of the challenges they face.

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