When “home” is a stranger’s house

Jacqueline at an IRC market fair

After being forced to flee from violence in eastern Congo, Jacqueline and her four children now live with a gracious stranger and have few possessions, including these washing basins that she chose at an IRC market fair.


Fleeing Congo’s brutal conflicts, a mother struggles for her family’s survival.

SOUTH KIVU PROVINCE, Democratic Republic of Congo—It is a torrid late afternoon in the highlands of South Kivu when Jacqueline, with her baby daughter strapped to her back and several washing basins on her head, finally makes her way back home. She descends quickly on the narrow path between mud huts slanting unevenly on the abrupt slope. She seems full of energy despite having walked miles since before daybreak.

Arriving home does not mean Jacqueline can rest. Her three older children who had stayed behind now cling to her demanding food. She has nothing to give them but a vague promise of fufu, the chalk-white porridge made from manioc tubers, or cassava. Easy to grow but nutrient-poor, manoic and the flour made from it are cheap at local markets. Still, Jacqueline struggles to put fufu on her table. Meat is something she doesn’t even think about anymore. It’s a luxury they last afforded before her husband’s sudden death, some five months ago.

In fact, for the past few weeks, Jacqueline has lived “just by God’s will,” as she has no income and no land to farm. Her “home” is actually a stranger’s house. Jacqueline and her children, together with dozens of other families, arrived in Kalehe district in South Kivu after fleeing their village in the middle of the night when a local militia swept through the area. Some had distant relatives here. Jacqueline, a 34-year-old widow, didn’t know anyone.

“I found a good soul who took us in,” she says, pointing to the two-room low-lying hut, which is now shared by 12 people.

She doesn’t even understand very well what happened that night. Neither is she searching for answers. All she knows is that she left everything behind, and that she and her family may never be able to return.

“It’s over there, across the mountains,” she says, looking over the horizon and into the past. “We all fled when we heard they were coming. They had attacked two other villages before. They had killed people, raped women. We just had to get away.”

They marched for more than two days and nights, through thick forests, fighting hunger and fear, always in danger. The highlands of South Kivu are swarming with armed rebels and militia groups, fighting among themselves or with the Congolese army. The renewed conflict has driven 450,000 people from their homes in the last nine months. The total number of internally displaced people in the province now exceeds 856,000 and, according to observers, the tally continues to rise.

As there are no camps in South Kivu, people on the run typically search for families in rural areas who can house them. Often poverty-stricken themselves, these families willingly share their huts and meager resources, not knowing if the strangers they accept into their homes will stay for a week, for a month, or forever.

“Jacqueline and her children were of course welcome,” says Yvette, her gracious host. “What happened is not their fault, so we helped them out. Maybe tomorrow we will have to flee too, and strangers will open their houses to us.”

For more than 15 years, millions of people in eastern Congo have lived under constant threat of violence or suffered brutal attacks. Lootings, killings and rape are widespread, and the state has little or no authority to help people cope with these atrocities.

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) has been providing emergency relief in the area since 1996. At present, the IRC is one of only three aid organizations in South Kivu that conducts both field evaluations—to assess the needs of the most vulnerable—and directly intervenes to help the displaced and the host families.

Today, Jacqueline has returned from an IRC market fair, organized to benefit several thousand people displaced in the last few months in the battered Kalehe district. Everyone received $75 worth of vouchers that they can exchange for different products brought to the fair by local vendors. Jacqueline chose washing basins, cooking utensils and several pagne, cotton fabric used to make clothing. For weeks she and her family have been wearing the same clothes they had on when they fled.

“This is all I own in this world,” Jacqueline says, somehow smiling as she unpacks the load from the market fair. “It’s the first time someone paid attention to us. When you don’t have anything, even a spoon or a plate make a huge difference.”

Last year, the IRC, through its UNICEF-funded Rapid Response to Population Movements program, helped more than 218,000 people, half of them children. In 2012 the pace of response significantly accelerated, as the displaced population swelled with the intensified violence in the province.

Displaced families who are able to return home often find their villages looted and destroyed. They are willing to start from scratch yet again, but before long some of them will be on the road once more, as the region remains incredibly unstable.

Others don’t ever go back.

For now, Jacqueline has no long-term plans. She just wants to find some work to be able to secure one fufu meal per day for her children.

“I just pray that we stay healthy,” she says. “I could not take my children to the health center, it’s too expensive,” referring to the consultation fee of $1.50. “And then we’ll see. God will look our way some day!”


To Help

Learn more about how the IRC supports the people of Congo by providing them with basic services like health care and education and helping them stay safe amid the ongoing violence.

Donate Now: On the ground in some of the world’s most troubled places, the IRC helps people at their moment of greatest need.


Sinziana Demian is a media and information officer with the International Rescue Committee in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

International Rescue Committee

About International Rescue Committee

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises and helps people to survive and rebuild their lives. Founded in 1933 at the request of Albert Einstein, the IRC offers lifesaving care and life-changing assistance to refugees forced to flee from war or disaster. At work today in over 40 countries and 22 U.S. cities, we restore safety, dignity and hope to millions who are uprooted and struggling to endure. The IRC leads the way from harm to home. For more information visit Rescue.org.