Woman Champions Peace and Harmony in Refugee Camp

Fluent in 5 languages, Mariam is
using her knowledge to make improvements
to three refugee camps in Burkina Faso

The majority of the 16,500 Malian refugees living in the Mentao camp in northern Burkina Faso know about Mariam*.

Through her work with Plan, 20-year-old Mariam is a one-woman force. Meeting with various refugees, she has mobilized both youth and adults alike to join various awareness-raising committees that promote the importance of camp health, hygiene, and sanitation. In her spare time, she also leads camp clean-up drives.

Mariam is no stranger to the needs and concerns of the refugees. Nearly two years ago, a series of events changed her life. When she was just 18 years old, her father passed away. This tragic event was soon followed by the military unrest in Mali which forced Mariam and her mother to flee the violence for the Mentao camp in Burkina Faso.

Once there she quickly became an asset to the camp. Fluent in the Bamana language, learned from her father, she also speaks her mother’s native language of Arabic. In addition to these languages, Mariam also speaks Fulfulde, Tamachek, and French.

Her fluency in five languages has led to her being the ideal translator for the relief organizations working within the camp.

Gaining Independence

As an only child, Mariam confesses that she had been spoiled by her mother. However, once they arrived at the camp and she was aware of the contrast between her home in Mopti and the shelter in Burkina Faso, she knew things had to change.

“It was really the first time that I felt sorry for my mother. I therefore refused to remain dependent on her for everything and decided to be the one giving support instead. I also reached out to other people, offering to help,” she says.

Mariam approached the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), offices in the camp and expressed her willingness to help. She was soon hired as a volunteer during the first counting of refugees.

As part of her first assignment in Burkina, Mariam toured the entire Mentao camp and then visited the Ferrerio, Damba, Ouagadougou refugee camps.

When the first round of counting had concluded, she was rehired for the second round where she was able to earn enough money to help her mother purchase food and household items and a motorbike which has enabled her to get around the camp quickly and provide her relatives with transportation.

A New-Found Confidence

Although the camp is not an ideal place to live, Mariam says that her experience as a refugee has changed her life and has given her the confidence to refuse child marriage, making her a role model to many young girls in the camp.

Even though Mariam lives in an environment where girls and women have to behave according to codes of social conduct set by men, she stands by her choices. She doesn’t always wear the traditional outfits and the veil. Given the nature of her work touring the camp and riding a motorbike, she often wears jeans and shirts much to the annoyance of many men who fear that their own daughters might follow in her footsteps.

“I have matured, and even feel surprised at my level of energy and at the way I so easily communicate with people. I have also learned a lot of things interacting with people, and for sure, even if my situation returns to normal, I would say that the best learning place for me so far is the refugee camp. I don’t want to lose what I have acquired here, and will in the future remain an expert in social mobilization and public relations,” she says.

She continues, “Some men went to my mother to complain about my look. But what they did not know is that between my mother and me, there is no room for anyone trying to slander me.”

Mariam’s dedication and hard work has led to a job contract which pays her $100 a month. She also has a caring boyfriend—a Malian refugee and third grade university arts student who hopes to return to his hometown to resume his education once the conflict has ended.

Mariam also hopes to return to Mali so that she may resume her coursework. But for now, she is devoted to her new role in the camp.

* Editor’s note: Mariam’s name has been changed to protect identity.