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Congo Emergency: Aid Worker Knows Refugees' Plight

By Helen Blakesley

"Fear." "Rebel fighters." "Attacks." "Looting." "Violence." These are all words that Michée Kashoshi uses to describe eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. But it's also the place he calls home. The Catholic Relief Services program manager was born here 41 years ago in the small town of Kamanyola, along the southern shores of Lake Kivu. It's an area plagued by decades of violence and fear.

Michée Kashoshi helps a women in Congo register for a CRS emergency response program.

CRS Program Manager Michée Kashoshi helps a woman in eastern Congo register for a CRS emergency response program using an iPad. The CAPABLE program is helping 7,200 disaster-affected families. Photo by Sarah Gilbert/CRS

Raised by his mother after his father's death, Michée watched her farm the family land to pay for school fees and put food on the table for seven children. She grew manioc, beans, maize and bananas, selling the produce at the local market. Although she never had an education herself, Michée's mom managed to send all her children to school. They worked hard and never took their education for granted. All four boys went on to earn university degrees and work in environmental conservation, economics or the humanitarian sector.

In 1994, Michée's family experienced a life-changing event: the genocide in Rwanda, which left about 1 million dead in just 3 months. Hundreds of thousands of Rwandan refugees filled camps along the border region near his home. At the time, Michée was studying nutrition at a nearby university in Bukavu. Congolese students were asked to host newly arriving Rwandan refugee students to help them adapt to life in a new city.

Michée so enjoyed helping his community welcome the refugees that he offered to distribute food and clothing in the refugee camps and evaluate nutrition and sanitation. This experience led to his career as a humanitarian aid worker. Michée got his first job at a nongovernmental organization at the age of 24, helping provide essential shelter and distributions to refugees in need.

But in October 1996, it was Michée's turn to flee. The First Congo War broke out, with troops from Rwanda and Uganda entering DRC. Chaos followed as communities fled into the forests and families were separated.

Michée, who had been working in the refugee camps in the Ruzizi plain, was forced to flee. He walked more than 60 miles to reach Lake Tanganyika, where he took a wooden boat south to Kalemie, a town in Katanga Province. He stayed there for 7 months, separated from his family. He had one shirt and one pair of pants to his name.

A woman shows the household items she chose at a CRS project in eastern DRC.

A woman shows the household items she chose at a CRS project in eastern DRC. The CAPABLE project also provides water treatment, toilets and an early warning system that alerts communities to rebel attacks. Photo by Katie Price/CRS

Thankfully, a Congolese family welcomed him into their home. This was before cell phones and the Internet, so word from home traveled very slowly. Finally, after those 7 months, Michée heard that his loved ones were safe and living in Bukavu. He immediately went home.

Since then, Michée has dedicated his career to helping Congolese people in need, working for numerous international organizations over the last 17 years. He even went back to school to earn a second degree in program management.

In 2010, he was recruited by CRS to work on emergency programs in eastern DRC. Michée made it back to Kalemie, where he had sought refuge all those years before. He looked for his old host family to thank them, but they'd moved away. But he's never forgotten their kindness.

Today, Michée leads a CRS project in the Katanga Province called CAPABLE (Capacity Building for Leadership in Emergencies). It helps people who have fled their homes—and the communities that host them—by providing essential household items, water treatment, toilets and an early warning system that reduces their vulnerability to rebel attacks.

Part of his job involves going house to house, meeting the people CRS is helping. He uses the latest technology to register each family, putting their details into an iPad or iPod. With each visit, Michée tries to make people laugh, in addition to giving advice. And he always takes the time to talk—as much time as he can spare during a large-scale emergency response.

Michée has his own family now. He and his wife have three boys and a girl: the youngest is 2 and the eldest 11. Michée helps them with their homework and talks to them about his work across the DRC. He hopes that one day, when his kids are grown, their country will no longer face so many crises—that, by then, vulnerability and insecurity will be a thing of the past.

Helen Blakesley is the CRS regional information officer for West and Central Africa. She is based in Dakar, Senegal.

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