Uganda refugees: what happens when the world looks away?
Save the Children writer Ben Brill visited Uganda in December 2015, to see Save the Children’s work in the country. As part of a series of three blogs, here he writes about his experience visiting a refugee camp in the Western region
From a distance, the Rwamwanja refugee camp in western Uganda is quite beautiful.
Green hills roll as far as you can see. Rickety houses made of mud and pink tarpaulin sit among maize plants and banana trees. Bright birds dart in front of our jeep as it drives past the fruit sellers that line the red dirt road into the camp.
60,000 people live here, most of them long-term refugees from the conflict in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, but the camp seems spacious and sprawling. It’s a far cry from the images I’ve seen of the Calais Jungle, with its heavy skies and barbed wire. Or tiny Lesvos, struggling under the strain of a daily influx of boats and bodies.
But it is no sort of paradise.
Look more closely, and small signs point to bigger stories. Toddlers totter through the site yards behind older brothers and sisters, wearing torn t-shirts and filthy dresses.
“Many of the children here, they will have only one outfit to wear,” Jerom, a child protection specialist who manages our work in the camp, tells me.
But dirty clothes are far from the most pressing concern for staff working in the ten early education centres Save the Children supports in the camp.
One caregiver tells me about children who arrive here knowing only how to fight each other. “We have to teach them that they shouldn’t treat their fellow children badly,” he says. “They do not realise that they shouldn’t fight them – they should care for them.”
It’s shocking, but no surprise. “These are children who have been through terrible things,” Jerom reminds me. “Some of them have seen their parents get killed.”
The early education centres give children in Rwamwanja the chance to learn, play and, over time, come to terms with whatever they’ve been through.
They’re not much to look at. A few wooden structures, topped with corrugated iron roofs. A patch of land out front. During lessons, over a hundred children will pack into a space not much bigger than a living room. Sheets and sheets of paper are pinned to the walls inside, spelling out English words and simple sums – the basics of the Ugandan curriculum.
On sunny days, shafts of light burst through the beams. But when the rain comes, Jerom tells me, water floods in, damaging the limited materials the caregivers have to work with.
At first, you’re struck by what a struggle it must be to cater for the needs of so many children in such basic surroundings but, after a few minutes, you forget about the challenges – you’re simply carried away by the sheer joy.
Outside, caregivers lead shoals of children in songs and games, pulling faces and laughing along as a hundred high-pitched voices clamour to join in. Some songs are sung to welcome us, others sound familiar – tunes I remember from my own childhood, reshaped to a different tongue. It’s relentless, beautiful and totally overwhelming.
Another side to the story
But what good does all this really do? Can singing a few songs and playing a few games really achieve anything worthwhile? Anything lasting?
The caregivers, many of whom have made similar journeys to the children they’re looking after, tell me the songs help the children forget the horrors they’ve seen. It’s difficult to say for certain after only a couple of hours with them, but seeing the happiness on everyone’s faces as they play together, it’s easy to believe.
There’s another side to the story though. Because being a child isn’t just about where you’ve come from: it’s also about where you’re going.
And the sad truth is that many children living in this camp aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. They have no homes to go return to, but nor can their families afford to move on somewhere new. Even in a country where 450,000 of the population are refugees, theirs is a status that comes with its own stigmas and limitations.
So perhaps it’s just as important that these facilities – with their simple lessons, their songs and their games – give children a glimmer of hope, a reason to smile, and maybe dream of a life beyond this confined existence. In a world with narrow horizons, every glimpse of blue sky must be precious.
There’s a catch though. As we chat, Jerom tells me how the funding programme that paid for these centres is about to come to a close. Soon they will fall silent.
He hopes the community will look after the facilities, and the government will support, but laughs nervously when I ask him whether he’s worried.
“The caregivers need people to keep an eye on them,” he says. “If there is no more funding, it means they will not be so dedicated.”
It’s a sobering thought.
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Before we leave, I talk to Blessed. She’s ten years old, and has lived here for two years now. I first see her skipping outside, her face breaking into a grin as she bounces over and over one of the ropes we’ve brought along as a gift.
Now, sitting inside, she tells me about her family’s journey from Democratic Republic of Congo, across Lake Edward and on to the Ugandan capital, Kampala to look for work, before they were sent here.
“I enjoy being here now,” she says, in a shy whisper that barely rises over the sniffles of her two-year-old sister, Gloria, who sits beside her. “I enjoy learning and I love learning English. When I grow up, I would like to be a nurse. My mother told me that nursing is about saving people. And that is what I want to do.”
I say all the right things – tell her I’m sure her dreams will come true. But I keep wondering what will happen to Blessed if this centre closes. Where will she go to learn? Will anyone be around to guide her?
It’s heart breaking to catch a glimpse of the difference places like this make, and to then imagine the gaping hole they’ll leave in so many lives if they disappear.
But Blessed is not unusual. When we talk about a global refugee crisis, we are not just talking about those fleeing the conflicts we read about every day.
We’re talking too about wars whose details we guiltily struggle to remember, in places we’d struggle to point to on a map; and of countless camps around the world where refugee children must live with troubled pasts, and face uncertain futures.
There are 19.5 million refugees in the world today, and many of them are children. Each of them has a story to tell, and dreams and struggles of their own.
The support we give them can help them hope for a brighter future – but if the world’s attention moves elsewhere, they may be left to fend for themselves.
The story of the refugees of Rwamwanja isn’t a remarkable one, but perhaps that is exactly why it’s so important that you hear it.
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