Kenya: Education rekindled my hopes, red tape has halted them

By Iragi Buhendwa, Congolese refugee who has grown up in Kenya

As a refugee, I have lost so much: family, friends, and the place I called home. I have tried to come to terms with this and move on, but it’s not been easy. For the last 12 months I have been stuck trying to get documents authorizing me to work in Kenya having graduated from university. I have lived and studied in Kenya for more than 20 years, yet now that I can finally become self-reliant, the system in the country I now call home is frustrating me at every turn.

I was only nine when I came to Kenya from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 1999. From the start, something felt amiss. I had to be home-schooled first to fit into my new environment. My teacher, also a refugee from the DRC, was good at French and English as he had been in Kenya much longer.  I felt empty but my sessions with him soon started shaping the direction of my life and rekindling my hopes.

I eventually joined primary school and the anticipation of learning something new every day filled my emptiness. Education gave my life meaning and school became my sanctuary. With the help of a local trust I was able to attend high school in Nairobi, during which I got my official registration as a refugee in Kenya. I was very lucky.  Many refugees wait for years just for an appointment to present their case. After school I landed an undergraduate scholarship to study at Daystar from which I graduated in July 2018 with high hopes of landing a job in human rights. I have always wanted work that upholds people’s self-worth and promotes human development.

After university, the reality of being a refugee hit me like a ton of bricks.
Iragi Buhendwa, Congolese refugee raised in Kenya

I believed my treasured refugee ID card was worth something. Filled with creativity, spontaneity, problem-solving skills and a refugee ID, I was ready for the job market. Little did I know employers balk at the idea of supporting refugee work permit applications. I heard discouraging stories from other refugees; one lost out on two job offers due to unexplained delays in the processing of their work permit.

My struggles with a work permit began when I landed an internship that paid a daily subsistence allowance. To be paid, I needed a work permit and a KRA PIN. My work permit application got lost between the Refugee Affairs Secretariat and the Immigration Department. After chasing it for more than two months, I was confused and frustrated and eventually gave up. Now as the months turn into a year, the lack of an income is biting hard. I dread re-applying afresh now that the requirements are so stringent because of the crackdown on “illegal” foreigners that started in last September.

Somebody’s got to help me.
Iragi Buhendwa

I suddenly feel so alienated. I must jump all manner of hurdles for everything – a work permit, employment, and financial services. To make it harder, a change in financial regulations in 2016 and 2017 barred refugees from using documents from UNHCR and required them to have a PIN to operate M-pesa and bank accounts. Getting a work permit is like chasing the wind and without it, I cannot get the mandatory tax PIN.

Kenya has been generous in hosting me, but while it says it is integrating refugees into society, refugees continue to struggle to obtain the most basic authorizations that would enable us to become productive members of society. I worked hard in school so that I could be self-reliant, but it all seems like a pipe-dream. Somebody’s got to help me.

This blog was first published by The Star on 20 June 2019.