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Overcoming Bullying and Isolation: Hakizimana’s story

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A group of children stand in a circle in an open field. One child, the secret leader, is waving his arms around loosely, as if they were octopus tentacles. The rest of the children watch out of the corner of their eyes and mimic the movement, but subtly, so the detective, played by a boy named Hakizimana, can't guess who started the movement.

Hakizimana leans on his crutches as he squints at his peers from the centre of the circle. His eyes rest on one boy who is avoiding his gaze. Hakizimana moves closer and stares at his movements until the boy starts to giggle. Hakizimana points and calls out, “It’s him!” The rest of the circle breaks into laughter. Hakizimana has won the game.

There was a time when Hakizimana didn’t feel so comfortable engaging with his peers. His disability, which impacts the use of his legs, made him the target of bullying and alienation from the other children. But with the support of community coaches who work with children living in the Nyarugusu Refugee Camp in Tanzania, Hakizimana is building connections with the children in his community and shifting their perceptions of what he’s capable of.

Coping with the pain of displacement and loss

In his short life, fourteen-year-old Hakizimana has experienced much hardship and loss. He was born in Burundi, and was only a few years old when his family fled to Tanzania.

“We have been living a refugee life for a very long time,” says Hakizimana’s grandmother, Habonimana. “We first came to Tanzania in 1996, after the war, and were hosted as refugees in the Nduta Refugee Camp until 2008, when all refugees returned to Burundi. We stayed in Burundi for seven years until 2015 and returned here after the election crisis.”

Habonimana lost five of her 10 children in the conflict. Those who were still alive, including Hakizimana’s mother, came with her to settle in refugee camps in Tanzania. The family was doing their best to settle back into life in the camp when disaster struck in 2017.

“We have been living a refugee life for a very long time.” – Habonimana, Hakizimana’s grandmother.

Hakizimana, who had always been a healthy child, went swimming in a river with his classmates after school. It was a daily ritual that the children looked forward to. But when he got home that day, something was different.

“He was complaining that he felt like he was being kicked in the back. We took him to the hospital, but unfortunately, they did not see the disease that was spreading,” says Habonimana. “He continued to hurt and as the days went on, the disease began to paralyze his body. After a while, he was completely unable to get up”.

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Doctors were eventually able to identify and stop the infection, which was caused by a water-borne virus. However, the damage had been done. One of Hakizimana’s legs would never recover, and he would need to use crutches to support his mobility for the rest of his life.

Hakizimana - Tanzania - Image 1 - Web
Hakizimana’s grandmother, Habonimana, has been one of his primary caregivers since his illness. She wants him to be able to achieve his dreams and be accepted by his peers.

Overcoming obstacles to find connection and belonging

Life in Nyarugusu is difficult, especially for those who have disabilities. There’s limited access to medical treatment, assistive devices, and other resources. On top of these challenges, many children have to travel far distances to get to school, which can be grueling and exhausting for those who use mobility devices. Once they get to school, lack of accessible infrastructure makes it difficult for children with disabilities to access classrooms or toilets. And there’s also a social stigma that causes many people to believe that children with disabilities are shameful and shouldn’t participate in school or social activities. Following his illness, Hakizimana found it difficult to cope with how differently he was being treated because of the change in his abilities. His closest friends stuck by him, accepting him and offering him support, but other children began to bully him. Hakizimana was afraid the other children were going to hurt him, and he started feeling depressed. His family worried about his low self-esteem and how it was impacting his performance at school.

“I was afraid to talk to my fellow children, but I was even more afraid to go to school because I was feeling different from others,” – Hakizimana, 14-year-old student

In 2020, Right To Play-trained coaches started hosting play-based sessions twice a week at a community centre close to Hakizimana’s home. These sessions were available to any child who wanted to attend, but the coaches specifically encouraged children with disabilities to join so they could foster inclusive environments and break down barriers between children living with disabilities and those without.

Hakizimana’s neighbour heard about the sessions and encouraged him to go.

In the play-based sessions, community coaches adapt games and activities so that children with disabilities can fully participate, encouraging their peers to welcome them and cheer them on. The games they play are designed to help participants learn fundamental life skills. In addition to Secret Leader, which teaches leadership and cooperation, the children play many other games such as, “Who is your hero,” which instills participants with self-esteem by encouraging them to draw or act out someone they see as a hero from their community and then reflecting on how they are similar to their heroes. In another game, “Hungry spider,” children develop decision-making skills and social awareness around boundaries by encouraging children to work together to create ‘safety-zones’ that protect them from one player, ‘the spider’, who is trying to catch them. It helps remind children that they have the power to make decisions around what makes them feel safe and how to identify others who can help keep them safe.

Each time Hakizimana showed up to the sessions, he was surprised by how much encouragement he received from his peers. In the adapted games, he didn’t have to worry about the possibility of falling behind or being left out. The coaches made sure he could take turns leading activities and the more he stepped out of his comfort zone, the more confident he became developing new friendships and trying new things.

Eventually, Hakizimana became a Junior Leader, helping to facilitate the sessions and supporting other children to develop these essential life skills.

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Hakizimana reads aloud from a textbook in front of his classmates, with the support of his teacher.

Turning confidence into academic success

With increased confidence and improved relationships with his peers, he no longer misses school. He still encounters some negative attitudes because of his disability, but his confidence helps him brush them off. Now, he’s an eager participant in the classroom and wants to set an example for other children who may feel shy or excluded because of their disabilities.

“Before I started going to the community centre, I was afraid to play with my fellow children. I was afraid to talk to my fellow children, but I was even more afraid to go to school because I was feeling different from others. But now I’m a leader and I know how to lead and play games, Hakizimana says.

Hakizimana’s improvements in academic performance have given him the confidence to have goals in the future – goals that include empowering other children who have disabilities.

“My ambition is to do well in class so that I can pass university. I want to be a doctor so that I can help my grandparents because they have eye problems. When I get a job, I will help my younger siblings who are living with my mother. But also other children like me who are living with a disability,” Hakizimana says.

My Education, My Future, is a program that aims to improve access to and the quality of education for primary school-aged children, especially girls, affected by the Burundian refugee crisis. The program has been active in Tanzania and Burundi since 2020 and is made possible with the financial support of the Government of Canada provided through Global Affairs Canada.

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