The First Interview (a long series)

By Derike Ingabire

On November 12, 2005, we reached Nairobi. We had no place to stay. We slept outside the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission on Refugees) office. Nairobi is one of the coldest cities in Africa. My mother collected cardboard from the dust bin by the main gate. She spread it on the ground so we four kids could sleep there. I was in great pain because I’d been stabbed by my father’s brothers before we fled. They followed us and stabbed me a second time. The wound in my ribs was deep and painful. At a hospital they bandaged the wound and gave me painkillers. Villagers gave us money and told us to go to Nairobi. The journey was 16 hours by bus. I was bleeding. My mother had to change and dress the wound. I was in total pain. We were running for our lives. When we reached Nairobi, a good samaritan took us to the front gate of the UNHCR office and said, “you will be helped here, they help people with same problems like yours.” But they didn’t help us. We slept on cardboard and bought food until our money ran out. My brother Dan and I started begging in the streets or going to restaurants to take leftovers to eat with our family. I never got medical attention and my wound started rotting inside.

We slept outside the UNHCR office for two weeks. Then a female officer came and took us in. My mother told her our story, and she felt pity for us. She gave my mother some money. I don’t really remember how much it was. She made some calls and in an hour, a UNHCR white van came and took us to a bus station. Many refugees were at the station. They told us the bus will take us to Kakuma refugee camp, where we will be safe and helped. It was two-days journey from Nairobi to Kakuma, long and tiresome. Being wounded, and just six years-old, traveling hundreds of kilometers felt like it would kill me.

The bus arrived at the camp in the late afternoon. It was a relief to arrive, but we didn’t like the look of the place. It looked like a desert. The sun was too hot and the air was full of dust, but when I looked around, the people were so happy. That gave us hope. We’d been running, seeking safety and calm for so long. The camp made us feel safe and alive again. Maybe this was home? Other refugees welcomed us. They made us feel like we belonged here. I felt much less pain because I was so happy. The others gave us food and water and a place to sleep. That night was the most peaceful night in my life. I slept like a baby. In the morning we were given a tent, blankets, sleeping mats, plates, one cup each, and a card for collecting our meals. My mother explained that this was a “reception center,” not our home. This was a camp where the UNHCR officials would find a new country for us to live in; soon we would go there, to our new home. We only had to be interviewed, so they would know our story and our hopes.

A few weeks later, on 18th December 2005, the UNHCR staff interviewed us. My mother called it “the first interview,” and I had no idea how many there would be. It was around 11:30am. We had finished eating our porridge with no sugar. My elder brother Dan and I were playing behind a tent a short distance from the tent where we slept. Dan is the mischievous child in our family. He is my best friend and ally. We always played together and he helped cover my mistakes as I helped cover his. We made cars from mud to play with. We had no toys, so we made our toys from mud. We learned this trick at Kakuma because all the boys were doing it. We saw our elder sister Rita running towards us calling, “Dan! Dan! Dero! Dero! mum needs you.” She was out of breath from running. Rita is the first born and also my antagonist. She always liked reporting every messy thing I did. I didn’t like her. We threw our toys down and ran with her. We thought she was taking us home but we followed her to the office where the interview would happen. We found our mother Grace and our other sister, Francine, eagerly waiting for us at the door. Francine is the second born and also the quietest among us. Dan and I were dirty, covered with mud, and our sisters and mother were well dressed. I had on black shorts with some holes between the legs, and a faded blue shirt. My brother was wearing his old school uniform for class 3, navy-blue shorts and a grey shirt. My sisters both wore green dresses my mother bought for them last Christmas, the only presentable clothes they had. My mother wore her pink dress. She was given that dress by a woman in Nairobi. My mother loves the pink dress. Pink is her favorite color and the dress is the only pink clothing she had. It was surprising, like it was some kind of emergency.

When she saw us our mother frowned and pulled our ears, “you will see what I will do to you after this,” she said pulling painfully. “Let’s go in,” she added. The office was open and we all went in. Inside we found a Black African woman sitting at a desk with a laptop open in front of her. She was busy typing on the laptop. When she realized we had come in, she stopped what she was doing and looked at us. The woman looked friendly and welcoming. She spoke Swahili. She was chocolate in color, and I remember very well she was wearing a red dress with white strips cutting across. I felt sure she was Kenyan. She said her name was Monica. What follows is everything I remember from our first UNHCR interview:

Monica: Good morning, thank you for coming in today. Please take a seat. (There were only three chairs, so my sisters and mother sat down while Dan and I stood.)
Grace (my mother): Thank you madam. (As the others all sat down, with my curiosity I threw my eyes around the room: it was very clean and organized. I saw drawers fitted with many files. I saw Monica’s handbag, a white remote control, her laptop, and a charger plugged in the socket. I also saw a bottle of water on the table. The bottle was dewy so it must have been cold. I was very thirsty but I was afraid to ask. I knew my mother wouldn’t like that. She would punish me when we got back to the tent.)
Monica: My full name is Monica Lotir and I am your interviewer today. (We all nodded our heads yes. From the name, I knew I was right guessing that she was Kenyan.) Who is the head of the family please?
Grace: I am Madam.
Monica: Okay! What is your name please?
Grace: My name is Grace. (Monica began typing on her laptop.)
Monica: Thank you Grace. I will ask you a couple of questions and you will answer. Are you comfortable with Swahili or should I call a translator to translate in Kirundi?
Grace: I can speak Swahili very well madam.
Monica: Are they your children? (She looked at the four of us.)
Grace: Yes they are. (My mother put her hands on Rita’s and Francine’s shoulders.)
Monica: Wow, that’s great. Kids! Can you tell me your names and ages? (Monica smiled, and it was easy to speak to her.) Who wants to go first? Lets start with……you. (She pointed at Rita.)
Rita: My name is Rita and I’m fourteen years old. (Monica typed in her laptop.)
Francine: I am Francine and I’m ten years old. (Monica kept typing in her laptop.)
Monica: Now to the boys in the house. (We all laughed.)
Dero: My name is Dero and I am six years old.
Dan: My name is Dan and I’m eight years old. (Monica finished typing on her laptop then looked at my mother.)
Monica: Grace, tell me more about yourself and tell me a little about your background? (Dan and I were sweating profusely because we’d been playing, and we ran, too. The weather was so hot and dusty. Our shirts were sweaty. Monica looked at us and picked up the remote and pressed it. A machine began whirring and in some seconds, the air was cool. What a relief! asked, “what was that Mama?”, and my mother scolded me, “I do not know. Can you please stop with your curiosity, this is not the right time for that.” Her eyes told me this was very serious.)
Monica: hahahahahaha (laughing) It’s okay mama. There is no need for that. Young man, this coldness is brought by the AC. (She pointed at a white box mounted on the wall.) When you press the remote it cools the room. Similarly you press the remote to turn it off. (Monica demonstrated this to us and we all smiled. “AC” was a new word and in my head I wondered what was the meaning of “AC?” It kept ringing in my mind.) Have you heard of it? (Monica looked at me. I nodded my head, no, and I looked down.)
Monica: I’m sorry mama, please continue. I switched on the AC because I can see your boys are drowning in sweat. It’s so hot outside. (We all smiled. The cool air felt good. We had never felt such a cool temperature since we came to the camp.)
Grace: Like I was saying, my name is Grace Mutesi and I am originally from Burundi. I am a single mother of four children, as you can see here. I came here because of the insecurities I faced with my children back in my country. (My mother paused to think for a moment.)
Monica: Please continue mama. (All the while she was typing on her laptop.)
Grace: My son was stabbed by his father’s family. They wanted to kill us all. They kept following us everywhere we went. Other villagers, good samaritans, helped us escape and we came here to seek refuge. We are here today to apply for refugee status. (Tears ran down my mother’s cheeks. She was still and silent. I felt sad, remembering the pain and fear. It was the worst experience of my life. Monica was silent too and in her eyes all I saw was pity. Then she spoke.)
Monica: I’m so sorry Grace, for what you and your family went through. Can you please tell me which of your children was stabbed?
Dero: Me. (I answered.)
Monica: Can you please show me where you were stabbed, Dero? (I went close to her table and removed my shirt and showed her)
Monica: Thank you. I’m so sorry, Dero. Grace, when did this incident happen? (I saw my mother bend her head down and she kept quiet. She then looked at me and started crying. I felt her pain and soon tears started dropping from my eyes. When my other siblings saw these, they also cried.)
Monica: It’s okay, please. I’m so sorry for reminding you of your past pains. You don’t have to answer that question.
Grace: It’s okay, madam. (She wiped her tears.) This happened back in Uganda, when my ex-husband’s brothers followed us from Burundi to Uganda and wanted to kill my children. They have never liked my children because they are Tutsi and I am a Hutu. My husband being the first born of the family, my children are a threat to their wealth. Therefore, they intend to terminate all of them. (My mother was silent again. Monica stayed quiet too, and the look on her face showed pity and understanding. I cannot remember all of the questions and silences. The interview took more than three hours. Dan and I were standing throughout. We were tired and hungry at the same time.)
Monica: You are such a strong woman Grace. (They both smiled.) Can you tell me why you seek refugee status, and what kind of opportunities you hope to find in a new country?
Grace: Yes, of course. We have been living here in the reception center for a few weeks now, and we are very grateful for the support we’ve received. I do not see a future for myself or my family in Burundi because of the threats and insecurities I described. We need asylum in a new country so we can leave the reception center and begin our new lives. I’m hoping to find a safe country where I can provide for my family and give my children a better future.
Monica: That’s great to hear, Grace. Can you tell me about your education and work experience?
Grace: I’ve never had the chance to go to school. (Dan smiled at this.) I got married when I was eleven years old, back in my country. (Monica looked surprised. She continued typing on her laptop.)
Monica: I understand Grace. (Her voice was sad.) Can you tell me about any challenges you have faced in your journey to acquiring refugee status?
Grace: Well, l really thank God for reaching here safely and for the safety of my family. We faced many challenges along the way to here especially in Nairobi where we slept outside in the cold for weeks. We barely had anything to put in our empty stomachs. I’m so grateful that we are safe here with my children and have something to put in our belly. (We all smiled.)
Monica: Thank you for sharing that, Grace. I appreciate your time and your willingness to share your story with us. We will review your application. There may be more interviews.

We stood up and left the small room. We headed back to our tent, sweating in the afternoon’s intense heat. We were tired and hungry. As soon as we reached the tent, I drank two cups of water. Rita picked up the meal card and went to collect our meals. She was back very soon. “Mama, its githeri again. I’m tired of this food. We eat githeri from Monday to Monday,” Rita said as she unpacked the food and placed it down for us to eat. “Githeri” is a mixture of maize and beans cooked together. “I’m tired of it, too” Dan added. But my mother wouldn’t hear it. “My children, you have to be thankful for even getting such a meal. Do you remember how we used to sleep hungry in Nairobi? Have you forgotten how we begged in the streets and even ate leftovers? Everything will be fine, okay?” We nodded our agreement and ate hungrily. As we finished eating, I asked my mother, “mama, why did that woman ask you so many questions?” She said, “my dear, its called an interview, and for us to find a new country where we can live we will do as many interviews as they ask us to.” I told her I didn’t want to and that I thought it was unfair. Our journey had been so long and so difficult already, how could we not belong here? “The interview process will be longer than the journey we had from Nairobi to Kakuma,” she said to me. “I don’t know how long, but it can be months or even years.” I was silent, wondering. Would they keep asking my mother the same things for many years? And if so, I thought, does that mean we’ll be talking about our darkest memories and fears for all those years?

19 June, 2023