MANTAPALA REFUGEE SETTLEMENT, Zambia — Wrapped in a traditional blue apron, Martha Milambo sells her tomatoes, onions and dried fish to the locals and fellow refugees at her small market in the Mantapala Refugee Settlement in northern Zambia.

Milambo, who started her business two years ago after receiving a grant from the local church and nongovernmental organizations, is a refugee from Congo. She and her family fled an armed attack on her village in 2018 in the southern part of the country and sought safety across the border in Zambia.

“I came here after they killed my husband. I knew we would all die and needed to save my remaining family,” said the 40-year-old mother of four.

Most refugees in the camp experience extreme poverty, having left their homes in Congo in a hurry without much of anything. They lack food, water, medicine, school fees for their children, and other essential items. However, Caritas Zambia, the Catholic Church and international and local NGOs are playing a vital role in helping refugees survive and recover from forced displacement.

“We came with nothing, and life became difficult for us,” Milambo told Catholic News Service. “We lacked food to eat, clothes to wear, and money to take our children to school. But I want to thank those who have come to uplift our lives by engaging us in business activities that provide a source of income.”

Southern Congo has been embroiled in ethnic conflict and fighting between Congolese soldiers and militia groups since 2017. The violence has resulted in the loss of hundreds of lives, while thousands of people have been displaced within the country. The conflict also has triggered a mass exodus of refugees to Zambia, where they have settled in Mantapala, located in the Nchelenge district in Zambia’s Luapula province — the second-poorest in the country.

The camp, opened in early 2018 to accommodate the refugees, houses about 18,000 people, according to the United Nations.

Since arriving, refugees have received emotional support and financial aid, skills development and life-saving assistance. They have learned business skills and received training in entrepreneurship, enabling them to start small businesses to support their families. Others have learned how to farm cassava, vegetables and corn, raise dairy cows, pigs, sheep and goats, and keep bees.

Catechist Michael Phiri said the Catholic Church has been providing refugees with a monthly food allotment consisting of corn, beans, cooking oil and salt. He said the church also has established community centers where refugees gather to pray, sing, reconcile and heal.

“Most refugees here are traumatized due to the war and persecution they have gone through and need mental health care,” Phiri explained. “We provide counseling to refugees so they can heal, live with the community and rebuild their lives.”

Dorcas Lubinda, 45, is one of the refugees who has benefited from mental health services. She was traumatized in early 2018 when armed men attacked her village in the middle of the night and shot her three sons and husband. She later made her way to Mantapala.

Lubinda said she thought of committing suicide after experiencing nightmares and flashbacks. “I couldn’t sleep. I used to see in dreams armed men shooting and killing my sons,” she said. “I could suddenly wake up and start shouting. It was a horrible experience for me to lose all my family in a single night.”

She underwent counseling with religious leaders working at the camp, which helped her address her grief. She started a grocery shop, which she ran for two years before remarrying.

“The counseling really helped me to regain hope and believe in myself,” Lubinda said. “I have been able to appreciate myself and begin life afresh. I am now a born-again Christian, and I have come to understand that everything happens according to God’s plan.”

Eugene N’gandu, who is responsible for Caritas Zambia’s Livelihoods and Climate Change Adaptation Program, said the organization started a three-year project in 2021 for refugees 17 to 23 years old. The program involves sustainable agriculture, village recovery and income-generating activities.

The project has reached more than 150 young refugees, who are the majority in the camp, N’gandu said.

“The project has enabled youths to practice agriculture, including beekeeping, and also engage in small businesses to help them become sustainable and help themselves,” he said.

Caritas Zambia, through the Diocese of Mansa, also has led peacemaking sessions to address conflicts that lead to the exodus of refugees from Zambia.

“We also encourage youths to care for the environment by planting more trees,” N’gandu said.

Bishop Patrick Chilekwa Chisanga of Mansa said the church has stood with refugees since they started arriving in early 2018, offering spiritual, emotional and physical support.

“The church visits them to provide relief items and also pray with them,” he said. “We have encouraged people to treat refugees well and live with them as brothers and sisters.”