It happened very fast. One minute a jolly Shadia Irakunda was on an errand for her father; the next, their house set ablaze with her father in it. Yes, her father was dead. “This place isn’t safe!” she heard her mother cry out as she latched onto her sibling’s hands. Shadia, her five siblings and her mother tried to stick together, but there was a stampede. Chaos! Bloodshed, too much confusion. The Burundian rebels were taking no prisoners; everyone ran as families were shredded to pieces.
Just like that, Shadia, a then 13-year-old Burundian national, found herself alone with questions running through her mind. Was her father really gone? Would she ever see her family again? She never did see them again.
Seeing how withdrawn she was, a stranger held onto her arms, and they headed for the Ugandan border via Tanzania. Shadia was unable to shake off the feeling of defeat. With her father dead and the remaining family’s whereabouts unknown, her dream of becoming a lawyer fizzled off into the background. Little did she know that Windle International Uganda had some hope awaiting her at the Nakivale refugee settlement in Isingiro District.
Upon receiving the basics and a tent from United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) at Nakivale refugee settlement, Shadia broke down again. “That was when I met a certain Muslim girl called Hindu. She asked if I spoke any Ugandan language, I told her yes because I had studied my primary here, she told me if you don’t mind, we can go home,” she recalls how she wound up in the hands of a kind woman. Shadia lived in Misyera village with Hindu and her mother, a widow with six children of her own. “I became the seventh,” she sighed with guilt.
Hindu’s mother, Rehema Nakabuye, had heard about scholarship opportunities for refugees like the sad little girl she had just opened for doors. “She asked when I had completed my Primary Seven and I told her in 2014. She told me about the opportunity to study secondary school,” she smiles.
It was the first she had smiled since starting to narrate her story.
The following day, an optimistic Shadia set off for the Windle International Uganda office, they welcomed her with good news. “They told me to feel free, that they were going to support me with my education.” She was given a scholarship at Nakivale Secondary School.
Interestingly, Windle International Uganda had taken to equipping young refugees like Shadia to learn survival skills. The hands-on skills training programme weaved into the curriculum ensured the youngsters acquired academic knowledge and skills to earn a living. Shadia’s was hair braiding, and in under a week, she had mastered the basics and used her free time to make a little money for herself. However, something still bothered the young learner; the combined four hours to and from school quickly became overwhelming. Then a terrible thing happened.
“One day in senior two, we were to do mid-term exams, so I had to come when it was still early,” she recalls. “I woke up at exactly 4am thinking it was past 5am. On my way to school, I met 3 men. They told me to first stop.”
It was an attempted rape! Shadia only escaped when an older man riding a motorcycle came to her rescue. “I thought maybe I am going to die,” she whispers and re-emphasizes the feeling. “I thought maybe they are going to kill me. They were very strong and older than me!”
Despite escaping the rape, Shadia knew she couldn’t go on being a day scholar anymore. As they sought options, she was lucky that together with the community, Windle International Uganda had just concluded the construction of the girl’s boarding dormitories at Nakivale Secondary School.
Today, the 19-year-old Shadia, also a Senior Five student, stays in school where she is the head of the Muslim students and dreams about being a lawyer. She has also attracted other scholarships from various partners and is described as an excellent student by her teachers.
“When I joined boarding school, I felt at home. I felt safe,” she smiles. Shadia loves school. “I wish they could let me stay at school during holidays, because whenever I am at school, I concentrate much on my books than me thinking of my lost family.”
As she says that, the subtle reminder of her pain lingers, but it is the hope that education brings her that saunters to the top. School is a welcome distraction; the prospect of joining University two years from now brings even more excitement.
“If it was not Windle International Uganda, I would not be in school,” she confesses. “I never had hopes of going back to school, but upon reaching them, they immediately gave me a direct scholarship and scholastic materials.”