Founder of The Dzaleka Project and nursing student, Joselyne John on her experience transitioning from a refugee camp to the halls of university, and why she hopes to give voice to others who remain in Malawi by providing a platform that shares all of their individually unique experiences.
Tracy: Let's start with your interest in nursing because I think this speaks volumes of you. When you finished your degree at SFU, you entered into the field of healthcare. Were you always passionate about helping others?
Joselyne: Yes so that passion started a long time ago. When it comes to passion, I find that sometimes it has been there for a long time but it just takes time to embrace it fully. It also depends on opportunities and where you are in your life. You might have a passion that you're not pursuing, but it’s still your deepest passion. I've always really wanted to help people which started off when I was young being raised in a big family. I have 12 siblings so we learned to help one another; you could say we grew up essentially raising each other when our parents were busy working. So that really nurtures your willingness to help other people. I never had the chance back then to explore it enough to know I could extend that to help other people who were not my relatives. So while going to SFU, doing my degree in health sciences, I knew that I wanted to do something within that system but I just didn’t know exactly what. At the same time I wanted to push myself to find out, but while also making sure that I wasn’t going to get into something I might want to switch out of. I wasn’t ready to keep jumping up and down, so to be sure, after I graduated I took a year to volunteer in a hospital. I thought, “Well if this is something I want to do, I know I'll be in the health care system, so let me find out exactly which part of it I connect with.”
That's a great idea. Which hospital was this at and how did you come to choose nursing from that experience?
It was Burnaby Hospital in the city of Burnaby. I tried to take on different volunteer positions to expose myself to different areas in that hospital, and then I decided, “Wow, I never imagined myself being a nurse. I felt so much respect for nurses that I knew I wanted to pursue that position, so I decided to apply to the Langara College nursing program and I got in the very next month.
You are also a founder of The Dzaleka Project which is an organization that seeks to empower refugees from the Dzaleka refugee camp in Malawi where you also lived. Do you hope to bring what you learn from nursing over there one day?
Potentially. The Dzaleka Project is a registered non-profit organization and the main objective is to empower refugees in a way that gives them a voice. So that comes along with facilitating any support that is possible, whether that is helping someone specifically in the camp or collectively helping refugees’ cause. A refugee camp is just like any other place. Anything that you think people have - love, ambition - it’s all there too. It’s just that those people tend to have political restrictions, which is the only difference between us and them. And so yes there are opportunities for me to help: there are opportunities for developing projects that help empower women, or projects to help provide education about a healthy lifestyle. So nothing is too broad for what can be done. We learn so much in nursing; we learn why we need to help people, but we also gain the knowledge to be able to help people, so these are skills I could definitely bring if it was ever needed there.
You started The Dzaleka Project from Vancouver where you moved to from the Dzaleka camp. Can you explain what brought you here and how the idea for your project came about?
Yes so in 2007 I received a scholarship to study at Simon Fraser University. This was offered to me by the World University Service of Canada which is a non-profit organization based in Canada. They have this big program among many other programs, called The Student Refugee Program where they go to different refugee camps and help students who just finished high school proceed into post-secondary education. For students in the refugee camps this is the only opportunity they will ever have to pursue anything beyond high school. There are other organizations that support education in the camp, but it just goes up to high school. After I finished high school I didn’t know that I could continue my education because refugees have political restrictions on their ability to even leave the camp. So while these students are talented and educated with the skills to invest in themselves and excel in life, they have that restriction. Most parents can’t afford to send their children away to university either, so the opportunity to leave the country is very rare.
So why are there political restrictions? If people are fleeing persecution or war and they enter into a refugee camp, they'll then have restrictions on leaving that camp?
Well that’s actually the biggest question, that’s a question that I asked too. Why. What can’t our refugees who are talented people, but who unfortunately happen to encounter war and have to run for their lives, why can’t those talented people be allowed to transfer their skills and passions into a new country? Research shows that this would actually advance the economy of the hosting country, so why do they decide to retain those political restrictions? I don’t know. There’s no such answer as to why to me. Individuals who are otherwise rational are being denied opportunities to invest in their own lives within a country that has agreed to provide asylum and to accept these individuals. So I would also like to know because, I don’t have the answer.
If I'm correct, it's the government of the host country that is saying no? So refugees who live in the camp in Malawi arrived by fleeing their country of origin, so politically speaking they are not citizens of Malawi. And because of the non-citizenship they aren't allowed into that country's society or economy?
I see. Yes, essentially the Malawian government has all the control. And they have the power and most importantly the choice to not arrest refugees when they leave the camp. Or for instance to welcome the refugees as contributors to the economy, which refugees have demonstrated that they are eager to do. This particular camp has a variety of nationalities from different countries: originally I’m from Burundi and others are from Rwanda, Somalia, and the Congo, among others. All of these countries as we know politically have had civil wars or are currently unstable. So it’s unfortunate that these refugees had to flee, but for many refugees they are thankful that they're actually just alive. Yet to me, being alive should be an experience that also comes with dignity. It is hard to feel alive when you are not free.
It’s easy for me to say, but all of the fine-print details shouldn’t matter when we’re talking about lives. Is there a process of gaining citizenship to Malawi so that you are able to leave the camp?
Not that I’m aware of. I don’t know about any process you can apply to, but I know that most refugees would want to try and integrate into a new society if that was a possibility. However I know that there hasn’t been anything officially introduced as an opportunity that’s available. There have been many instances of arrest when refugees left the camp or tried to establish a business. Or if they tried to do something else, they were politically discouraged and threatened. I just think logically how can there be an opportunity to become a citizen? I’m not aware of that process but I also haven’t heard of anyone speaking to something like that either.
Who runs the Dzaleka camp there? Is it similar to what we see with camps run by the UNHCR?
Yes it was established years ago by the UNHCR, but looks different than what you might imagine, or from other UN refugee camps. Like I said with these political fences, you can’t see them so if you went to the camp right now, you’re just going to see houses here and there. We have a camp administrator, so if there was an announcement it would come from them. The camp is really far away from any town, so if you wanted to go into town you would need permission to leave. You go to the administrator and you would get a pass so that if a policeman stopped and questioned you, you would show your refugee status paper. So when you think about it, that’s very restrictive. What if you wanted to go into town but the camp administrator is not there? I feel that people should just be allowed to move freely. If a country has accepted people as refugees, they give them a home because they know their country is not safe. So they say they’re providing a form of protection, but it’s not because you’re trapped again.
They’re saying, “Welcome to our country, you’re safe here.” But yet you’re not given the opportunity to integrate into that country.
Yes because you’re not part of that country and never will be given the chance to be. But being part of the country allows you to contribute. Being a part of a country is a sense of belonging that certainly comes with a set of responsibilities, but refugees are happy and ready to accept those responsibilities. They are responsible individuals already, they are no different. They just haven’t been allowed to channel their skills into the Malawian economy.
It’s comforting to know there are organizations that exist to help transfer you to a new country like the one you encountered, the WUSC.
Yes, hopefully we have more organizations like that or that these current ones are able to receive the funding in order to continue what they’re doing. Because being a refugee is just like any other circumstance that is out of your control. But unfortunately for refugees, it’s that moment where you were just sitting at home drinking tea with a friend, and then you hear gunshots. So you realize that you have to run for your life, and when you do, you lose a lot in the process. If you are lucky, you’re alive by the time you run, and by the time you get to a refugee camp you are lucky if you have all your family with you. That’s just how it happens. No one chooses to be a refugee, and at the end of the day a refugee could be interviewing me like how you are doing right now, or a refugee could open a restaurant like this one we are in. When you arrive at the camp as a refugee, you still have your passion to pursue your goals, and you want to be allowed to work like you were doing before the war. You did not cause the war, it’s something that is beyond your control and unfortunately involves your life. So this is why at The Dzaleka Project we hope that by giving refugees voices, people can learn to connect with refugees as people - as the individuals that have dreams, passions, and goals too.
All over the world, whether it’s in Africa, the Middle East or even here in Canada, if people have been hurt, we seem to have a social ill where those individuals are often seen as a burden. I think that’s because politically our representatives are not willing to look at this with enough depth. It takes more time than most political terms to address a lasting solution. So it’s easier for them to toss people aside, placing them in camps or in prisons.
That’s a perfect point. As a society we have to learn not to blame people for their unfortunate circumstances. In the case where a war just started, or where someone is being abused, it’s horrible and completely wrong to say that they caused it. They shouldn’t be placed in this category where no one wants to help them because of a traumatic experience from their environment. I don’t understand how someone could think otherwise because I look at all life as potential. What can we do with life? What can two different individuals do with their lives? There are so many possibilities, but some have a different set of privileges that others don’t whether that’s political or otherwise. And when you look at people in the camp, their potential is just as high as people here, or people who lived in a country that hasn’t been interrupted by war or conflict.
So how does The Dzaleka Project give them a voice? What is the platform you use to help share their words rather than just yourself speaking on their behalf?
Yes so one of the major things we’re doing is creating an online platform for refugees to share their stories and actually connect with the world. This way they can feel that they each have a voice - their own individual voices to show their own individual personalities. To some people this means that they now have the freedom to connect with the world - something that seems impossible when you are in a camp with no access to anything outside of those boundaries. I like to call these invisible borders political fences. You can be in an open ground but if you leave you are going to arrested for doing so, that is a fence - it’s very visceral. No one else sees it, only the people that it applies to, and that's a very trapped place to be. So I want to open a window to the rest of the world through this online platform for them. Our current project is creating and maintaining a refugee blog [which we are currently fundraising for]. So we [hope to] have www.Dzaleka.org [for] our main website, but also to act as the camp’s blog. On there you’ll get Dzaleka news on what’s happening in the camp where people are writing from their own voices, which we currently operate on our Facebook page which also acts as the camp's blog until we can get the website launched.
Going back a little bit to the challenge of speaking for others is that I also understood my passion wasn’t something that only I was going to do. As the president of The Dzaleka Project, I was an advocate for raising awareness of refugees, but that came with the huge challenge of talking about refugees in general or about what was happening in the camp while knowing that there are so many individual experiences I wasn’t there to see. Initially I would talk about the refugee experience by referring to my family because I felt more comfortable speaking about them. So with the blog, myself and others on the board of directors were very excited about the concept because we could provide individual voices from the camp residents themselves. For example, if you have people there who are pregnant, they can talk about what that’s like. I could never talk about what that would be like because I have never been pregnant in a refugee camp. Or if there’s someone going to high school there, I’m past my highschool experience which was years ago, so there are likely changes. This way, someone else can talk about what it is like to actually go to school in the camp today. These are experiences that no matter how much we advocate or try to speak for refugees, we’ll never be able to touch on those interesting stories.
I really admire that because I’ve always been hesitant to put leaders on a pedestal. Everyone has potential to share lessons from their own experiences, and everyone has an equal reason to speak. So by focusing on leaders, you often oppress the voices and opinions of others who may be just as worthy.
Exactly! There shouldn’t be one person speaking on behalf of everyone. This is something that with The Dzaleka Project I really struggled with. While I was speaking about the concerns of my family over here in Canada, I had to work hard to remain in contact with them to do so. Five years into living away showed me how much my experience evolved in terms of an accurate representation of that place, because a lot has changed. It is not a stable thing living there, and even the political restrictions change over time creating new challenges for the people in the camp. So if I’m going to speak about it, and in order for the Dzaleka camp to be represented with an accurate story, I have to be able to phone my family which can be expensive. So the best way for others to have their experience told is through access to a blog, and directly from their own words.
That’s what I was going to ask next. How do they gain access to the internet?
Yes, this is one of our major fundraising campaigns. We welcome anyone who wants to become a member of our organization or anyone who wants to make a one-time donation in order to keep the blog a possibility. Access to the internet for them is the most important to keep it running, because talent is not a problem. We have people who are journalists and who have other capabilities in the camp, so we just have to provide the funding for that access. We have volunteers who can go and assist people there; some may not know how to write english very well or who may not be as comfortable typing. And our volunteers will help show them how to upload their stories onto the blog. Even as we speak, our Facebook page is being updated by people in the camp. So pay close attention because sometimes you’ll see an update saying, “Oh this happened in the camp today.” And that is coming directly from someone living there. We are doing a really grassroots approach on it. They live in that environment, they know what it’s like, and so they can tell their own stories. So as far as facilitating support to them as an organization, they can now tell us directly. We can learn so much from them in terms of what they need to pursue their passion from there.
Having access to a world audience via the web opens the door to individual opportunities which isn’t often the case with other NGOs. But in terms of bringing these voices to a platform that other people in the world can see, first we have to discover it. Raising enough awareness to gain an audience is a huge undertaking.
Yes! But being an advocate for this community is a huge honour, because fortunately I was able to leave this place for good reason, but I just couldn’t believe that the others weren’t given the same opportunity, which they deserve to have. So for me it’s important to be able to advocate for this.
Well I think you’re doing a great job, and perhaps someone new will feel inspired to jump on board from reading your words here today. I know I certainly will. Thanks again Joselyne, you are doing wonderful things!
And thank you for giving me the chance to speak about this Tracy, it was very nice to talk to you!
Capture Queue is a one woman team, so it's always greatly appreciated if readers feel inclined to bring my attention to any typos or corrections.