Growing up in Bukavu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), 13-year-old Bertine Bahige was studying hard to become a doctor.

But everything changed the day rebels stormed into his town, going door to door to abduct new recruits.

“It was the hardest thing,” Bertine recalls with a broken voice. “Looking in your parents’ eyes and knowing that you’re about to be completely separated from everything you have ever known in your whole life.”

Bertine spent two years in captivity before escaping. After a long journey by boat and truck, he arrived in Mozambique, where he spent the next five years in Maputo refugee camp.

The young Congolese refugee was especially worried about continuing his education – there was no secondary school in the camp. After some interviews, Bertine was told he was going to be “referred for resettlement”, but he did not know what that meant.

Thirty-five countries take part in UNHCR’s resettlement program, however less than 1% of the world’s refugees are resettled. In recent years, the United States has been the world’s top resettlement country, followed by Canada and Australia.

Bertine Bahige, 38, fled violence in the DRC as a child. Today he is the principal of Rawhide Elementary School. © UNHCR/C. Hunter

UNHCR helps resettle refugees to third countries and ensures they are provided with legal and physical protection, including access to similar rights enjoyed by nationals.

When Bertine landed in Baltimore, Maryland in the United States in 2004, a warm feeling grew inside him: “Now I am safe.” Bertine’s first job was at a fast food outlet, where he started taking out the garbage before moving up the ladder to become a cashier.

“I always challenged myself to the next thing,” Bertine says. “I had been given a chance to live a new life, to educate myself, and I wanted to get the best out of it.”

Bertine did so well in school that he was offered a scholarship to study at the University of Wyoming. At university he met his wife, and after graduating in mathematics and math education he became a high school teacher in the town of Gillette. He now has two children and is the principal of Rawhide Elementary School.

“This country took a chance on someone who had nothing, and it has blessed me to be who I am,” Bertine says. “I look at it as my civic duty, my responsibility, to give back that way.”

Bertine was recently in New York to share his story at the United Nations headquarters in support of a new global agreement – known as the Global Compact on Refugees – aiming to strengthen support for refugees and the countries that host them

 

“I was given a second chance in life and I wanted to do something purposeful.” Bertine speaks at the Global Compact on Refugees meeting at the UN Headquarters in New York. © UNHCR/A. Kelly


Among the solutions the new deal promotes are more resettlement opportunities, like the one Bertine had.

“There is a misunderstanding about who refugees are and what they are asking for – all refugees are asking for is an opportunity,” Bertine says.

“Sometimes we look at it as, ‘How much is that going to cost me?’ But we fail to look at it from the other side – ‘What can refugees bring? How can they enrich our community?’”

Today, Bertine enjoys working with at-risk kids and is able to connect with them at a deeper level than a regular teacher. His former students often come back, even years later, asking him for advice or to help them with something they are struggling with.

“I understand where they come from, what it’s like not to have food, to think that it’s you against the whole world, to not understand English,” he says.

“But I also understand that that’s an opportunity for me to show them that I got them, that we are going to work together step by step, that they can actually be successful.”

Bertine resettled in the US and is now married with two children. © UNHCR/C. Hunter

Ensuring refugee children have access to education 
is one of UNHCR’s key priorities.
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