by Devota Uwilagiye

The Country Operation Planning (COP) meeting is an annual 2-day workshop organized by UNHCR that brings together leaders from the Botswana government, Skillshare International Botswana, Botswana Red Cross, the Dukwi refugee camp clinic, and nearby village governments. This year, the COP was held in Mahalapye, a village located between Francistown and Gaborone (the country’s capital). The workshop allows leaders to discuss the challenges that they had faced implementing programs for refugees in the previous years, as well as some of their successes. They then plan for the upcoming two years.

These plans are for the refugees that live in the Dukwi refugee camp in Botswana, which is located north of Francistown along the road toward Maun, Botswana’s most popular tourist town. UNHCR invited six refugees to join them at the COP this year. I was one of the people invited to represent the refugee community. For those of you who don’t know, a refugee is someone who has been forced to leave their country, especially during a war, because of fear of persecution including political or religious reasons. When I was approached and asked to be in the workshop, representing the youth refugees, at first I did not believe the words. I thought it was a kind of joke. But in fact, on Wednesday the 4th of March 2015, I found myself in the bus, along with five other refugees heading towards Mahalype.

We settled in at the Seduda Hotel where we were welcomed like officers of high positions. That alone brought a smile to my heart, mind, and face. I felt I was knocking at the gates of my dreams and indeed I was. Dinner was brought to my room and all that I needed was provided by the hotel. For once in a blue moon, I felt I was in another world where I was not recognized as a refugee, but as a marvelous young leader who is respected and looked upon.

In the meeting were the leaders from all the different organizations and governments. Being able to sit among these people of high influence was an exciting moment of my life. The comments I made and the discussions I participated in during the meeting made me realize that LEEP never came by mistake into my life for it is among the springs of water that flows in my life. LEEP has shown me the secrets of becoming an excellent leader. It has built my self-esteem, confidence, and gradually changed my inner self.

Before I joined LEEP, I was a very shy person. Whenever I stood in front of a congregation, I felt butterflies in my stomach, my mouth would go dry, and I would shiver on the stage, and would sometimes pause for three minutes because my mind would suddenly go blank. I used to present looking down because people’s eyes made me uncomfortable. I remember one day when I was in high school when I was asked to give a motivational speech in front of three hundred people at church. It was a terrible moment in my life. I had memorized my speech very well at home, but when I stood in front of the people, my body was shaking and when I started the first line of my speech, my mouth was very dry and I could not remember the next line. I kept on repeating the first line, trying to remember the next line but I could not. I immediately heard the whole church saying, “Amen!” You can imagine how embarrassed I was. I was very scared to move until one lady stood and took me off the stage. I was so heart broken that I cried that day. After I joined LEEP, to be frank, I completely changed.

During the COP workshop, we were divided into three groups. In our groups we were asked to discuss what could be considered as the priorities for 2016 and 2017 concerning programming for refugees in Dukwi camp, whether water, shelter, scholarships, donor aid, health, food, or jobs to mention a few. In my group, people I thought were perfect in leadership skills were the ones talking on top of others’ voices. At times they were all talking at the same time and there was no order at all – everyone wanted their own voices to be heard. Seeing this, I shouted, “Talking stick, please!” (The talking stick is a tool we learned about in LEEP whereby only the person with the stick – real or imagined – speaks while everyone else listens) People paused and stared at me. “Can you please engage everyone?” I asked. And they actually considered my request. Words cannot describe how I felt.

The following day, I was asked to present on behalf of the youth refugees. Before I stood up to present, I took a deep breath just like I was taught in LEEP. I was able to stand and represent the youth fearlessly in front of the high-class leaders and community leaders. After my presentation, people who I thought were unapproachable as the stars came to me. They hugged me and shook my hand saying, “That was awesome and brilliant my girl.” Some began digging into my life, they wanted to know who I was, where I came from, and what I was currently doing. During that moment, I felt I was in the same class as them.

When I arrived back in the camp, the community people young and old were greeting me with respect. Those that I never saw in the community came to me that day. They wanted feedback from me. With the skills that I learned in LEEP, I was able to give crystal clear feedback. Other young stars of my age are now admiring me. My parents are proud of me. I am now recognized as a leader in my community and I am extremely happy.

About Devota
Devota, 22 years old, comes from Rwanda and has lived in the Dukwi refugee camp in Botswana since 2002 when she arrived as a refugee. Dee joined LEEP in 2014, and has been essential to the program's success.
Proving Myself A LEEP Leader