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'My dad was killed in front of my eyes.' Stories from Malawi's largest refugee camp

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It was 6am at Dzaleka refugee camp in Malawi and more than 6,000 children were arriving to get their free breakfast, provided by Mary’s Meals.

The Scottish charity feeds more than 2.2 million children in 20 countries every day.

The meals, locally sourced and tailored to the cuisine of each nation, help combat hunger and encourage youngsters to stay in school when they might otherwise drop out to work.

The Daily Express visited Umodzikatudza Primary School in Dzaleka as Mary’s Meals marked its 20th anniversary.

It is one of 4,754 educational settings supported by the charity across the globe.

Most pupils there are aged between six and 13 but some who have missed periods of education are older.

Among those enjoying the daily meal was Mugisho Thieck, 17. He fled the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2019 after his family was torn apart by a brutal episode of violence.

He said: “Where I lived, there was no security. There were groups of soldiers who would come into the village and kill people, take their cows. That’s what happens.

“My dad was killed in front of my eyes. My two brothers were inside the house and me and my big brother, and mum and dad, were outside cooking rice.

“We heard [screams and shots] and dad told us to take the food inside.”

Mugisho’s voice shook as he described hearing his mother’s screams as his father was shot and the soldiers beat his three older brothers.

Villagers came to their aid and the terrified boys fled but were separated from their mum in the chaos.

Mugisho and his brothers ended up as refugees in Malawi but were also separated. He said he did not know what happened to his mother but he believes she is still alive.

With tears streaming down his face, he insisted: “There is a connection between blood.

“After losing my father before my eyes, I know that God cannot take both of them.”

After arriving in Malawi with nothing, Mugisho worked in a restaurant for six months before he was taken in by a good Samaritan.

The woman, a teacher, gave him clothes and helped him learn English. He now lives with her and her husband in a house near the camp.

The brave teen said his favourite subjects were English and science. He hoped to earn a degree and find a secure job, while working as a singer in his spare time.

Mugisho said the daily serving of porridge gave him energy to feel awake in class. He added: “Many children come here to school without eating anything.

“At home there is nothing but they say: ‘At school at least I’ll have something.’”

The atmosphere in Dzaleka was different to other schools supported by Mary’s Meals – the queue to receive food more chaotic, urgent.

Some of the children knew all too well the pain of a contracting stomach that has been empty for too long.

Many had been traumatised by conflict and war in countries including Rwanda, Burundi and the DRC. The mix of languages spoken also made it harder to keep order.

The mood was joyous though, the jostling friendly as youngsters leaned over one another in their eagerness to get their porridge.

Some tried to decant it into bottles to save for later or share with hungry relatives, although this was discouraged.

Refugee Boniface Balenga, 27, had taught English and Maths at the school since 2017.

He left the DRC ten years ago because of conflict. He said: “My mother was killed and my father ran away, I couldn’t trace him.

“When I had a chance to leave I took it because my life was in danger. I was alone, the journey was long but with the grace of God I’m here.”

Boniface said it was often difficult to find food in the camp and some children are forced to beg for scraps at the market.

The free daily meal helps them concentrate on their work without being distracted by hunger pangs, he said.

He added: “Education is very important because it’s the key to success. If we don’t educate the children, we’re killing their future. We can help them overcome challenges in their lives and become good citizens.”

Prince Ben, 38, was another teacher who had been at the school for 10 years after leaving the DRC with his wife and three children.

He said: “There is hunger in the community, some children don’t have food and sleep on an empty stomach which makes it difficult for them to come to school.

“But if they know there is porridge in the school, they come early in the morning and it helps them to stay in class and learn.

“If a child is hungry it’s difficult to concentrate in class but if they’ve eaten something they’re able to focus.”

Education gives vulnerable children a chance at a brighter future, Prince said. He added: “It gives hope to say: ‘Tomorrow will be better.’”

Mary’s Meals is running a Double The Love appeal until the end of January, which will see donations doubled by a group of generous supporters, up to £1.5m.

● You can donate to the charity’s vital work here.



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