Rice, beans and best friends: A Nigerian embrace for Cameroonian refugees | Refugees

Ogoja, Nigeria – Rebecca stares down her sandy road previous the palm timber and T-junction. No signal of Blessing. It’s already after 7:30am, and their faculty’s morning meeting will quickly begin. Rebecca sighs with aid when she sees her buddy working in direction of her. “Sorry, sorry,” Blessing gasps, “I needed to queue for hours to get water this morning.” The 2 15-year-olds hug and shortly make their approach to their secondary faculty, a stone’s throw from Rebecca’s dwelling in Ogoja, a city in southeastern Nigeria about 65km (40 miles) because the crow flies from the Cameroonian border.

One of the best mates sport related buzz cuts and put on the identical white shirt and navy blue skirt uniform. As they hurry to highschool whereas chatting in Pidgin, there may be little to counsel that they arrive from completely different international locations. But Rebecca Jonas was born and raised in Nigeria, whereas Blessing Awu-Akat is a refugee whose household fled violence in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions the place Francophone authorities forces are preventing English-speaking separatists.

Rebecca’s household lives on the town in a duplex with a fuel range and indoor bogs. Blessing lives in Adagom I, a settlement on the outskirts of Ogoja the place virtually 10,000 Cameroonian refugees reside. Her household makes use of firewood to cook dinner and shares latrines and showers with different refugees. And within the morning, when everyone is waking up, she has to attend in line to make use of the communal water faucets to clean and gather water to organize breakfast. Which is why Blessing’s buddy cuts her some slack when she is late.

Blessing’s mom Victorine Ndifon Atop stands in entrance of the home shared by the household of 9 within the refugee settlement of Adagom I [Femke van Zeijl/Al Jazeera]

An open settlement

Blessing’s household fled to Nigeria in November 2017. She remembers the morning when a military helicopter all of a sudden hovered over their village of Bodam, which lies near the Nigerian border. “Everybody began working into the bush. However there, troopers had been capturing at individuals,” she recollects.

A buddy of hers was shot, Blessing says, shivering in horror as she factors at the place the bullet shattered her buddy’s arm. She, her mother and father, her three siblings and two cousins, escaped on foot to the Nigerian border unhurt, however destitute. “There was no time for us to pack. All I had was the gown I wore that day.”

Simply throughout the border, the violence was by no means distant, and at night time, gunshots on the Cameroonian facet saved the then nine-year-old lady awake. As a result of the border space was not secure for the 1000’s of refugees, Nigerian authorities determined to maneuver them additional inland. That is how Blessing’s household was resettled at Adagom I, 63 hectares (156 acres) of federal authorities land that Nigeria supplied to the United Nations refugee company UNHCR to make use of as a settlement for the refugees. “Right here I lastly managed to sleep via the night time,” Blessing says.

Adagom I, named after the village within the Ogoja space the place the refugees had been resettled, will not be a refugee camp with curfews, exit restrictions and separate camp faculties and clinics, however an open settlement of about 3,000 households the place inhabitants can come and go as they please and work together with their Nigerian neighbours freely. In Nigeria, a rustic already confronted with the problem of greater than two million internally displaced individuals (IDPs), principally within the northeast, all 84,030 UN-registered refugees from Cameroon get pleasure from freedom of motion, entry to healthcare, schooling and the suitable to work – rights that many wealthier international locations on the planet don’t instantly grant to foreigners looking for refuge inside their borders.

The federal government additionally waived faculty charges for refugee youngsters to allow them to proceed their schooling and return to as regular a life as potential. That’s how Blessing and Rebecca turned classmates and finest mates at Authorities Technical School, Ogoja.

A photo of Blessing (right) and Rebecca walking outdoors in their school to get to a classroom.
Blessing and Rebecca head to their classroom at Authorities Technical School, Ogoja [Femke van Zeijl/Al Jazeera]

Figuring out what it’s prefer to be new someplace

Blessing and Rebecca barely make it to the college meeting on time; the band has simply began taking part in the college anthem as they rush via the wrought iron gate. When the meeting is completed, they head to their classroom, the place they all the time sit collectively, ideally on the entrance. As they wait for his or her English lesson to start out, they recount how their friendship began.

It was Blessing who welcomed Rebecca on the primary day she got here to highschool in March 2021. Rebecca had simply moved from Lagos along with her mom and brother – her father stayed behind to run his enterprise promoting dwelling home equipment. She dreaded her first day in a brand new faculty. However there was Blessing, a pleasant lady who had attended the college since her household arrived in Ogoja in September 2018. She greeted the extra timid Rebecca when she entered the classroom and moved over to create space for her to sit down down.

“She was the primary to accommodate me,” Rebecca says with a smile. “She knew the way it was to be fully new someplace.” After faculty, it turned out, they took the identical route dwelling, and since that first day, Rebecca has waited for Blessing to go by her home within the mornings to allow them to stroll to highschool collectively.

Rebecca is conscious that violence drove her buddy out of her nation, however she doesn’t ask her about it. “I don’t need to make her cry,” she says.

Generally, she sees unhappiness in Blessing’s eyes, and her chatty buddy grows quiet. Then Rebecca tries to cheer her up by telling her a foolish story or getting her to sing – they like to sing gospel songs collectively. Generally, she notices Blessing finds it onerous to pay attention at school. “Then I do know that afterwards, she’ll be asking to take my notes dwelling to repeat them,” she says. Regardless that it means she gained’t be capable of examine that day, Rebecca says, “I’ve to lend her what I can. She’s my buddy.”

Their English trainer Consolation Ullah Solomon, 46, remembers how misplaced and lonely most of the refugee college students appeared after they first arrived in Ogoja. “They appeared miles away, typically they weren’t even listening, as in the event that they had been in a trance,” she recollects. When Adagom I opened in 2018, loads of Cameroonian youngsters got here to the college. Within the first yr, virtually one-third of the scholars had been from Cameroon. Right now, as they’ve moved to different faculties in Ogoja, about 150 of the greater than 1,000 pupils of the secondary faculty are Cameroonian.

A photo of Comfort Ullah Solomon writing on a blackboard.
Consolation Ullah Solomon teaches English to college students in Rebecca and Blessing’s yr [Femke van Zeijl/Al Jazeera]

Generally, in these early days, there was friction, the trainer says. She describes an incident the place a Nigerian and Cameroonian pupil had been working round when the previous playfully shouted, “I’ll shoot you!” The Cameroonian teenager broke down, leaving his classmate puzzled. Consolation sat down with them and defined to the Nigerian pupil the violence his classmate had fled, and the way for him the sport might need felt actual. “They turned mates,” she says.

She made an effort to consolation the brand new college students. “I saved them shut, instructed them they had been worthwhile. After some time, their absent-mindedness disappeared.”

Blessing confesses she was scared when she first arrived at her new faculty. “I assumed the Nigerians would bully us and ask us what we’re doing of their land,” she recollects. However the best way the college teamed up the refugees with their Nigerian fellow college students for the Friday quizzes and debate groups shortly made her really feel accepted.

Her 17-year-old Nigerian classmate, Benjamin Udam, admits he was additionally anxious when the brand new college students got here. “I assumed possibly that they had a unique lifestyle than us. However we turned out to be simply the identical,” he says.

Blessing’s Nigerian classmate Alice Abua, 16, remarks that Cameroonians put together their soup with little or no water, one other mentions they dance the makossa, whereas one other suggests their English sounds a bit completely different. Aside from that, they don’t see any substantial variations between Nigerians and Cameroonians. And when requested who has a buddy from the opposite nation, everybody within the classroom raises a hand.

A photo of Rebecca (left) and Blessing preparing rice and beans.
Rebecca and Blessing put together rice and beans at Blessing’s place [Femke van Zeijl/Al Jazeera]

Rice and beans

After faculty, Rebecca joins Blessing at her place to cook dinner rice and beans, their favorite meal. They stroll to the settlement market to purchase condiments, over the crimson sand paths lined with papaya, palm and mesquite timber, previous the one-storey homes refugee households constructed with bricks and roofing sheets offered by the UNHCR.

The market distributors are a mixture of refugees and locals. Janet Aricha, the lady the ladies normally purchase crayfish from, is from Ogoja. She by no means noticed the refugees as a menace. “I felt dangerous for them,” she explains. “Think about to lose your house and all the things in a single day.”

Very like the opposite Nigerian sellers on the market, she noticed the inflow of recent clients as a enterprise alternative. Even on the town, most individuals agree that financial alternatives in Ogoja, dwelling to an estimated 250,000 individuals, grew with the arrival of Cameroonian refugees.

In the meantime, the ladies realise the cash Blessing’s mum gave them has completed earlier than they’ve managed to purchase all of the components they want. “How did we neglect pepper?” Rebecca asks her buddy in disbelief. However Blessing has an answer; on the best way again, she asks a neighbour if she might pluck some chillies from their backyard.

At dwelling, Blessing’s mom has began the hearth. Whereas her daughter and her finest buddy put together the meal, Victorine Ndifon Atop talks about life on this new place.

It’s not simple, however for the kids she tries to make life as acquainted because the one they left behind, the 43-year-old says. She factors on the backyard in entrance of the 20-square-metre (215-square-foot) home the now household of 9 shares. The small patch of garden is meticulously lower and the white periwinkle and hibiscus shrubs are blooming.

She solely knew Nigerians from Nollywood motion pictures after they first got here to Nigeria. “In these motion pictures, they’re all the time shouting at one another,” she says. “So again dwelling, we thought they had been all ruffians.” However six years in Adagom I modified her thoughts. When the refugees first arrived, full strangers from city introduced them garments and provisions. And sooner or later, a Nigerian neighbour from the host neighborhood of Adagom gave her a plot of land she now grows cassava on to organize fufu, a well-liked Western African dish, to promote. “They embraced us and acquired us like household,” she says.

A photo of a two women, one is standing in the back and one is looking through vegetables and grains and spices at an outdoor market.
Nigerian vendor Janet Aricha, proper, says she feels for the Cameroonian refugees who got here to the realm after dropping their properties to violence of their dwelling nation [Femke van Zeijl/Al Jazeera]

‘They’re like us’

Down the highway, a five-minute stroll away, Adagom I chief Stephen Makong shrugs to point he finds his neighborhood’s hospitality in direction of refugees self-evident. “After all, we gave them land to farm on. When you don’t, what are they going to eat?” he asks.

When the village chief was instructed concerning the refugee settlement plan in his neighborhood, he noticed it as a blessing. “My father taught me: for strangers to come back to your own home, you should be an excellent individual.” Not everybody in his neighborhood thought so, he provides. “Some younger males had been afraid they’d come and declare possession of the land. However I instructed them they didn’t come to steal our land. They’re working from conflict. You can’t drive them away once more.”

However there are occasional disputes. “Even when two brothers reside in a home, they quarrel,” the chief says. When some refugees lower timber within the forest for firewood, a city corridor assembly was referred to as to elucidate that in Cross River State you solely use deadwood for cooking. However life collectively has been largely harmonious, most individuals within the village say. They’ve additionally benefitted from the settlement’s growth. The UNHCR divides investments within the native infrastructure between the refugee and host neighborhood, reserving about 30 % of its finances for the latter. The drilled wells, water faucets and the widened highway via the village wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for the refugees.

On high of that, the locals found that some Cameroonians are from the identical ethnic group as them – the Ejagham who reside on each side of the border. So that they even share a language, says Makong. “They’re like us. We’re the identical individuals.”

That cultural proximity, mixed with the perceived financial benefits, might clarify why Ogoja has taken in 1000’s of Cameroonians with out a lot native resistance. Farmers who used the federal land the place the refugees had been settled could grumble a bit regardless that they’ve been compensated for the crops they may not harvest. And with inflation making everybody’s cash far much less useful, the city’s financial exercise has floor to a halt, very like in the remainder of the West African nation. However that doesn’t make the refugees much less welcome, says the chief. “We get pleasure from collectively, and we undergo collectively.”

This hospitality in direction of strangers on the run from violence will not be an exception in Nigeria. Three-quarters of the Cameroonians looking for refuge within the nation didn’t need to go to a refugee settlement – they discovered shelter inside a neighborhood. Simply as, based on the UN, greater than 80 % of Nigerian IDPs discovered refuge with fellow Nigerians.

A photo of Blessing (right) and Rebecca shaking hands outside.
Rebecca and Blessing greet one another within the morning earlier than going to highschool [Femke van Zeijl/Al Jazeera]

‘She is my buddy’

Again at Blessing’s dwelling, the 2 ladies have completed cooking and sit within the shade with a plate of steaming rice topped with smoky bean sauce on the ground in entrance of them. For some time, the chatting stops and the one sound is the click of two spoons on the shared aluminium plate. Once they end their meal, Blessing teases her slender buddy, “The way in which you eat! I don’t perceive you’re not fatter.”

The solar is on its approach down when Rebecca arrives again dwelling, however her mom doesn’t thoughts. She is comfortable her daughter has discovered such an excellent buddy. “After I take a look at them, they remind me of my finest buddy and me again dwelling in Akwa Ibom,” says 39-year-old Favour Jonas, referring to the Nigerian state she grew up in. “I keep in mind how we used to gist, play and sing collectively as ladies.”

Subsequent yr would be the ladies’ last yr in secondary faculty. Afterwards, even when they go to completely different universities, Rebecca is certain they are going to keep in contact. For now, she has extra quick issues to consider. Tomorrow they’ve a maths and an economics examination, and Rebecca hopes Blessing gained’t be late. However even when she is, she’s going to look forward to her. “I’ve to,” she says. “She is my buddy.”

This text has been produced with the assist of UNHCR.

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