You may have seen images on the news of the influx of refugees into Uganda from South Sudan. But what the news doesn’t tell you is the stories of individuals, or their heroism. I have had the chance to hear about both.
I visited Uganda some months ago. By that time, hundreds of thousands of refugees had fled their homes in South Sudan to neighbouring countries. Their nation had been plunged into war, and food was short. Even those refugees who escaped carried with them terrifying images of death and violence.
Uganda had been receiving more than 2500 refugees each day. They funneled into the 48 refugee settlements that had sprung up in four districts of Northern Uganda, and this was where World Vision as working. More than 1 million refugees are now living in Uganda.
Our staff work tirelessly and come from a diverse mixture of backgrounds, ethnicities and faiths. The staff don’t just provide basic needs in the camp, but go further to encourage and comfort refugees, offering emotional and psychological support. I could see their deep understanding of the people they serve.
One person I met in the camp told me her extraordinary story, and I think about it often.
Her name is Jaqueline, and she is a mother to three children: a six-year-old, a three-year-old, and a baby only one week old. When she was forced to flee, she was heavily pregnant and had to travel for nine days without food or water. Like everyone here, she is unsettled and doesn’t know what the future holds.
She told me about Victor, a fourteen-year-old who arrived in the camp shortly after she did. Victor has three brothers: John (his twin), Richard (12) and Peter (9).
The boys had been staying with neighbours while their parents attended a wedding, but when conflict erupted, they had to escape without their mother and father. “We heard people screaming, people were crying,” Victor recalled. “I came out and heard many people yelling: run, run, run! I went to get my brothers and we just ran.”
It took several days to get to Congo. Peter, the youngest, was terrified of seeing dead bodies as they travelled, so his brothers took turns carrying him, urging him to close his eyes so he wouldn’t see. They begged for food, but two days passed with no food at all, and they drank water from rivers.
Another several days after Congo, they arrived in the Uganda refugee camp, a place where refugees are welcomed under Uganda’s refugee policy. But without their parents to guide them, the boys had no idea what to do next.
In the myriad of people, Victor spotted a face from their village. It was Jaqueline. The boys ran to her, crying for some help.
This put Jaqueline in a tough situation. The past months had been full of hardship as she had taken care of her children, endured pregnancy while travelling with no food, and given birth to her child in a refugee camp. Now here were four more boys, begging her to care for them. She felt helpless. But in her heart, she knew what she had to do.
“I have no one to help care for me. I don’t have anything or any money,” Jaqueline told me. “But I had to help. So I brought these children to my home.”
When I asked her how she decided to do this, she simply said that she felt for the boys.
I was struck with her compassion. She set an example of ultimate kindness and sacrificial love, doing something many of us will struggle to do. Even refugees who have nothing can open their homes to others.
I wondered if many others could be this generous if they were in her position. Would I be brave enough to do what she did? I am not sure I would be.
To me, Jaqueline is a hero, and I will never forget her.
Uganda has a highly progressive refugee policy, and refugees have a great deal of freedom to relocate from the refugee camp if they wish to. For someone like Jaqueline, though, moving isn’t enough. She really wants to return to her own country. After being uprooted so suddenly, she craves familiarity and to be surrounded by relatives. She has no idea when this might happen.
In the meantime, she joined a savings group with fifteen other women, and managed to get a $100 loan to start a business of her own. She tells me excitedly about her shop where she sells eggs, cassava and grocery items in front of her home, and she hopes to expand. Although she is provided with food at the camp, she is determined to be self-reliant and active.
It had been five months since Victor and his brothers had seen their parents, and each of the boys still hoped they will be reunited. Children like Victor have also endured scenes of killing, torture and violence that no child should ever endure, and healing will take time.
Victor’s eyes lit up when he talked about returning to school. He explains, in confident English, that his dream is to become an electrician, not only to connect power but to learn a trade and be able to support a family. More than half the refugees in the camp are under eighteen, and hundreds of thousands of them share Victor’s hope of a family and education.
World Vision and partners will continue to provide support to people like Jaqueline and Victor who are in distressing circumstances. Children can go to child-safe spaces organised by World Vision, where they can play and learn through singing, dancing and other activities. This helps them to grow self-esteem. Adults can receive training in areas like financial literacy and agriculture to set them up for rebuilding their lives.
My visit to Uganda struck me with the generosity and courage of the human spirit. People like Jaqueline and Victor have lost everything, but still they hold onto hope. We in Australia can learn how to be thankful for what we have, but also remember that we have an opportunity to help.