AKRON, Pa. – Faida Alex is 22 years old and is from Burundi. Until late 2012, he had never lived there.
In 1972, long before he was born, his parents left Burundi during turmoil in the country. They landed in the Mtabila refugee camp in Kasulu, Tanzania. Later, people fleeing the 1993-2005 civil war in Burundi joined them.
In July 2012, after gradually reducing services to camp residents, the Tanzanian government announced it would close all camps of Burundian refugees, saying no compelling reasons remained for them to stay in Tanzania.
The Mtabila camp was closed in late 2012. Alex, his two brothers and sister were among about 33,000 people involuntarily repatriated to Burundi. Their parents had died earlier in Tanzania.
Help Channel Burundi (HCB), a Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) partner, knew the returnees faced hardships. Land is in short supply in Burundi. Many of the children had been out of school for several years and spoke Swahili and English, not the French and Kirundi taught in Burundian schools. Families had difficulty supporting themselves despite help from the United Nations and other organizations.
At HCB’s request, MCC sent more than 2,000 boxes containing 48,960 cans of turkey and beef to help address immediate needs. It was distributed to more than 8,000 households from late 2013 through spring 2014. In addition, MCC school kits were provided to more than 8,000 children, and 269,581 pounds of maize, purchased in Burundi with money from MCC, was distributed.
HCB’s usual work focuses on environmental protection, food security, agriculture and child-centered community development, but the organization returns to its relief roots when needed.
Since 1946, MCC’s meat canning program has sought to provide safe, nourishing food to people affected by war, disaster and malnutrition.
Each year from October to May, a canning crew of four volunteers goes on the road with a 42-foot mobile meat canner. At 33 stops in Canada and the U.S., the crew is joined by hard-working volunteers who prepare turkey, beef, pork or chicken to be preserved in cans, following Canadian and U.S. food safety standards.
When Alex and his siblings arrived in Burundi from Tanzania, they settled in the area their parents had left in 1972.
“Our uncles told us that our parents sold their plot of land before fleeing to Tanzania,” said Alex. “Our aunt gave us a very small plot of land for only constructing our house. We are in a nameless misery. Sometimes, we think it is better to return to Tanzania because there at least we can get work in the fields.”
Alex was dubious when HCB showed up to identify potential beneficiaries for food relief. In his experience, such organizations never come back. He was relieved when HCB returned with the MCC canned meat and school kits, as well as other items. He remembered thinking at the time, “We will have some days without thinking about what we will eat tomorrow.”
To learn more about MCC’s meat canning program, visit canning.mcc.org.
Jennifer Price of Lewes, Del., an MCC worker seconded to Help Channel Burundi where she is project manager for food security projects, contributed to this story.