Through No Fault of Their Own
I n June of 2015, my wife Melanie and I traveled to the “Pearl of Africa,” Uganda, to spend a few weeks with our son Josh, our daughter-in-law Mikiko, and our two delightful grandchildren. Accompanying us were five bags, three of them bulging with deflated soccer balls, air pumps, jump ropes, and Frisbees.
Josh and his family live in Kampala, the capital of Uganda. He serves as the U.S. Department of State’s Regional Refugee Coordinator for Africa’s Great Lakes region. In his current position, Josh works for the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM), whose focus is the issues relating to refugees, other migrants, and victims of conflicts.
Josh spends up to half his time in the bush visiting refugee settlements, traveling by boat, plane, and Land Cruiser. He works with the United Nations refugee agency, the different host countries, and numerous other organizations to monitor the status of refugees served by programs the U.S. helps fund. The region he covers is home to more than three million refugees and IDPs, or internally displaced persons.
Melanie and I had hoped to accompany Josh on one of his visits to a refugee settlement. Melanie’s idea was that we ought to try to do something that would bring a little joy into the lives of some kids. Josh was indeed able to obtain advance permission to have his parents join him; so, with financial support from our local Church in the Tetons, we had purchased the play items that filled those three large bags.
The Rwamwanja Refugee Camp is located in western Uganda toward the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It is not the stereotypical refugee camp we read about or see on the evening news. Rather than a camp containing tents lined up side-by-side in long rows, it is a settlement comprising about fifty square miles and more than thirty villages.
And that is where, three days after arriving in Uganda, we were headed in the white PRM Land Cruiser piloted by Lawrence, Josh’s driver.
It’s a four- to five-hour drive of 180 miles over paved and then deeply rutted dirt roads from Kampala to the administrative offices at Rwamwanja. After arriving and being welcomed by the settlement administrators, we drove to the reception center. Here newly arrived refugees are temporarily housed in a dorm-like setting and fed two hot communal meals a day prepared by resident women. Most of the refugees in Rwamwanja come from the DRC, where life has become extremely dangerous due to fighting between local armed groups, militias, and government troops. As of March 2016, 48,000 refugees from the DRC were living in Rwamwanja.
What struck us first was the presence of a group of people with very pale skin and fair hair: albinos who had escaped the DRC, where, because of their appearance, they had been abused and persecuted. In fact, individuals with albinism are not infrequently murdered for the purpose of harvesting their body parts, which are sold to be used in witchcraft. Most of the albinos don’t stay long in Rwamwanja, but are resettled to a Scandinavian country.
In the dirt courtyard of the reception area, people hung out in small groups, and women stood over large pots on open fires. Curious smiles broadened when Melanie brought out her camera, and the grins widened even more when we broke out the soccer balls and jump ropes. Within minutes, young boys and men were pumping up balls; just as quickly, the women and girls had the jump ropes twirling.
After three to four days at the reception center, families are allocated plots of land fifty meters square, thus allowing them to build a simple dwelling, plant crops, and work their way toward self-sufficiency. To get them started, they’re provided basic necessities such as plastic sheeting for shelter, jerry cans for hauling water, mosquito netting, and tools for clearing the bush and planting crops.
A significant number of the refugees from the DRC are “unaccompanied minors,” mainly young boys, who enter Uganda on their own. They do their own cooking, sleep together under one roof, elect their own leaders, and get themselves to school.
As of 2014, the settlement had five primary schools and one secondary school. It also supported two health facilities. The first one we visited consisted of a single-room building with a table, behind which sat the nurse. On the table were containers of various medications, including at least one anti-malarial. A long line of patients waited to enter the building.
The main health center is located near the administration buildings. There we met the sole physician, a young, very pleasant Ugandan, who did everything: supervised the midwives, performed C-sections, and treated malaria and other infectious diseases. The facility was absolutely packed with patients. The pediatric room held so many cribs containing children with IV tubing running into them that there was barely room to walk. In the obstetric room, all the beds were occupied, and women were sitting or lying on the floor.
The numbers are staggering. As of March 2016, Uganda alone held 520,000 refugees, most of them from the DRC and South Sudan. In the DRC there were almost 3.8 million displaced people. This included refugees from the Central African Republic and Rwanda, as well as about 1.5 million IDPs, Congolese forced to flee their homes because of conflict. Other Great Lakes countries—Tanzania, Republic of Congo (ROC), and Rwanda—held another almost half million refugees.
Given the internal conflicts, the opportunity for most of these refugees to return to their homes seems unlikely. Integration into the culture, economy, and society of the host country may be an option for some. Rwamwanja’s emphasis on promoting self-sufficiency may offer a first step in that direction. Resettlement in a developed country—the U.S., Canada, or one in Europe—is an option for a relatively limited number of individuals. That leaves millions of displaced persons with little hope of ever living, or seeing their children live, outside the confines of a refugee settlement.
The primary purpose of our trip was to spend some rare time with family. It was great fun hanging out with the grandkids, reading books, playing games, going on a four-day safari in a national park, and swimming in a pool overlooking the Nile. But our visit to Rwamwanja instilled in us a deeper empathy for those who, through no fault of their own, have been forced to leave their homes. And, after seeing the work being done to try to provide for these displaced people, we have the utmost respect for the individuals and organizations striving to make refugees’ lives better and see their dignity restored.
The Teton Valley Connection
Our daughter-in-law Mikiko works for PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, initiated during the George W. Bush administration. Mikiko administers small grants to organizations in Uganda that play a role in preventing, treating, and dealing with the impact of AIDS.
One of the grantees is a shelter in the capital city of Kampala, which cares for children with no family. They may be homeless “street children” fending for themselves, or orphans from an island in Lake Victoria where AIDS has decimated the adult population.
A friend from our church here in Teton Valley is an artist who, on learning that we were headed for Uganda, had handed us a check, asking us to use it to buy some art supplies for children in need. Mikiko suggested that it would be a real treat for the children in the shelter to be able to create some artwork. So, Melanie and I paid a fun visit to the local bookstore, selecting all manner of art supplies as well as some really cool children’s books.
On the appointed day, our son Josh drove us to a shelter situated at the end of a potholed alley in downtown Kampala. We were welcomed by the staff, given a tour of the facility, and introduced to some of the kids, who greeted us with shy smiles. The crowded bunkhouse-style sleeping arrangements made a deep impression on us. Beds are triple-deckers made of metal with only a thin blanket separating the sleeping child from the steel crossbars. Multiple kids share one bed.
The need was great, obviously. The sleeping facilities were overflowing. A new, larger dormitory was under construction, and some of the kids were being housed off-site. We were distressed by the thought of these kids sleeping on those steel bars. So, when we returned to the valley, we talked with our friends at Church in the Tetons about procuring some basic foam mattresses. Mikiko began trying to organize the purchase of mattresses on our behalf.
In the meantime, Rotary International stepped up and bought the mattresses. So, the shelter staff suggested we supply backpacks for the kids to take to school. Mikiko was able to find a local women’s cooperative to fabricate the packs. This solution provided work for the women as well as packs for the kids to wear to school.
It was an opportunity for some Teton Valley folks to lend a hand—and, overall, a win-win-win situation.
By David Fischel
Photography by Melanie Fischel