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A Champion for Children: Danielle’s Story

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How one former refugee now teaches children to live in peace

It’s a hot day in Burundi, and Danielle is standing in the middle of a crowd of youth who have just finished playing a football game together. The teams are composed of children from both major ethnicities in Burundi – Hutus and Tutsis – and the after-game discussions provide an important forum for the children to talk about peace, reconciliation, and loss. Danielle skillfully helps them open up and share how they’re feeling in a safe and welcoming space. She understands their pain because she shares it herself.

Danielle was just eight years old when the Burundi Civil War broke out in 1993. By its end, 12 years later, 300,000 Burundians were dead in inter-ethnic violence, and more than 500,000 people had fled to neighbouring countries. Danielle’s mother, father, three brothers and her older sister were all victims of the violence, and in 2000, 15-year-old Danielle, newly orphaned and still grieving her losses, ended up as a refugee, living with a widowed female cousin in one of the many sprawling refugee camps in Kigoma Region in western Tanzania.

“I was a refugee and an orphan, so I understand the challenges these children face. It can be difficult to feel hope, but it is possible, and we can empower them to do it.” – Danielle

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Life in the camps was hard, and the toxic combination of stress, poverty, and grief ate away at Danielle. Even the most basic necessities like food were strictly rationed. She spent several years in the camp growing increasingly more hopeless and depressed, and with a constant ache in her stomach from tension and hunger. When she wasn’t sad, she was angry. The refugee camps were filled with people – both Hutu and Tutsi – who blamed the other ethnicity for starting Burundi’s civil war. They taught young people like Danielle to hate the other side and see them as criminals, and militias would sweep through on a regular basis to recruit young people to their cause. It’s estimated that more than 14,000 child soldiers fought in the civil war; many of those children were recruited out of the same set of camps that Danielle was living in.

In 2001, Right To Play began working in the refugee camps on the border of Burundi, Tanzania, and Rwanda to provide health education. Before long, we began offering a broader program to promote social inclusion, boost holistic skills like communication, and help youth advocates work for peace.

Danielle joined in 2002, the second year of the program. Like many of the other refugee children, her first involvement with Right To Play was attending a game session in her camp. Playing games like football and volleyball helped to take children’s minds off the frustration, sadness, boredom, anger and other negative emotions that they carried with them in their everyday lives. When Danielle was playing, she could focus on the game and leave behind the despair she still felt over the loss of her family and her anxiety over the future.

“The games helped me to cope with my situation and find my strength despite the despair I had been feeling. I built strong connections to the coaches and drew strength from their positive examples.” - Danielle

Soon, Danielle was selected for leadership training, and she became the coach of a youth volleyball team in the camp. For the first time in her life, Danielle felt empowered, like she could make positive change in the lives of others.

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As part of her training, Danielle learned how to use play to broach discussions about difficult issues and help children and youth open up and express themselves. She engaged children in talking about the civil war, about what each group had done to the other, about loss and grief, but also about peace, mutual respect, and the possibility of co-existence. The hatred that she had been raised to feel drained out of her and was replaced with hope and compassion. She wanted to play a part in dissolving the hatred that had inflamed the war.

In 2008, three years after the end of the Burundi Civil War, Danielle was able to return home. Like many other returning refugees, she was nervous about what she would find when she came back. Leaving the camps meant leaving her support network – the cousin who had raised her and the other Right To Play coaches who she had become friends with – and starting a new life.

After just a short time home, she realized how tense the situation still was in Burundi. Though a formal peace treaty had been signed to end the war, the underlying sentiments of anger, loss, and hatred for the other side were still strongly present in Burundi. Along with the adults, thousands of child soldiers and refugees were struggling to reintegrate into a fragile society. Danielle had changed, but many others had not.

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From 2010 to 2013, Danielle worked for Right To Play training other coaches to use play and sports to promote peace, tolerance, and inclusion in children and youth. Refugees from the civil war were slowly returning, and crises in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo meant thousands of new refugees were fleeing their own trouble and coming to the newly peaceful Burundi. Danielle and the coaches she trained worked to help people integrate with their host communities, drawing on her first-hand experience to identify potential issues and help children cope with their new lives.

“Standing up for the rights of children, especially refugees, is not easy, but it is essential. I want to ensure that children are protected despite the ongoing challenges.” – Danielle

In 2014, Danielle began working with one of Right To Play’s partners in Burundi. The organization she works for focuses on helping marginalized children protect their rights. She had been there for just over a year when in 2015, Burundi exploded in violence once more, leading to 1,700 dead and more than 400,000 refugees fleeing the country. Once again, militias tried to recruit vulnerable youth to serve as soldiers. Danielle refused to flee this time, standing her ground for the sake of the kids she was helping, many of whom were at risk.

The worst of the violence has passed, but there are still sporadic outbreaks, and hundreds of thousands of refugees have yet to return home from Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Rwanda, where they still live in the same camps that Danielle once did. For Danielle, this recent crisis reinforces the importance and urgency of her work. Only breaking the cycle of hate can put an end to violence and allow refugees like her to return home.

“We face great challenges, but I believe that we must hold onto hope in the face of them,” she says. “Children must have a future that is free of violence, where they are respected and respect one another. Only then can we have peace.”

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