Refugee leader fighting coronavirus through information sharing

“Everybody was frightened as news of the novel coronavirus dominated the media. Some even wondered if it was the name of a new gun.."

“At first, many people did not believe a woman could lead, but I proved them wrong,” says Angelique Abiola. “Six years later, they all call me Camp President and even compare me to former presidents like Ellen Sirleaf Johnson and Joyce Banda,” she laughs.

As the Chairperson of Nyarugusu Refugee Camp, which hosts more than 130,000 refugees, Angelique has an enormous task. She coordinates the work of almost 600 camp leaders who are nominated by refugees in an electoral process.

“Being a leader has been particularly difficult this year,” says Angelique, who fled the Democratic Republic of Congo 14 years at the height of the conflict. “Everybody was frightened as news of the novel coronavirus dominated the media. Some even wondered if it was the name of a new gun, for only guns could kill that many people around the world in such a short time”.

Curbing the growing angst and misinformation that was spreading in the Camp was high on the priority list for Angelique and other Community leaders. “Everyone turns to you for solutions,” she says. “Will the pandemic reach us? Will humanitarian agencies continue to support us, or will they flee? Are Africans immune to the virus?” are just some of the questions they received. This time, Angelique says, there were no easy answers!

People sitting under a shade

Following discussions with UNHCR and other partners, the community leaders, led by Angelique, were tasked to support in disseminating approved World Health Organization and the Government COVID-19 messages to the community. Through weekly meetings, the leaders are informed of the latest developments, and they, in turn, passed this to the community through their vast networks.

“To ensure only the right information on COVID-19 reaches the population, we first verify the information and its sources before sharing with partners for dissemination and sensitization,” says Ms. Malika Shakya, UNHCR Associate Public Health Officer. “This has greatly helped to counter misinformation on the virus and reassure the community that the humanitarian partners will continue to support them,” she adds.

Some of the changes that have come with the virus have not been easy, but the community is aware of just how crucial it is to abide by them. “We have had to change the way we do things. We are now conducting our leaders’ coordination meetings by phone. Children are now learning how to read and write from home since the schools closed. We have also had to contend with fewer commodity varieties in the markets”, says Angelique.

“But as leaders, our message to the community is clear. We will only win the war against coronavirus if we all abide by the precautionary measures put in place - like regular hand washing and social distancing,” she adds.

In Tanzania, refugees have been integrated into the Kigoma Region’s COVID-19 Contingency Plan. Within the umbrella of this Plan and in close cooperation with the Refugee Services Department in the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Regional Authorities, UNHCR is coordinating and working with partners for camp level preparedness and response.

Written by
Maimuna Mtengela
UN entities involved in this initiative
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees