Gareth Wallace is Executive Director of the Conservative Christian Fellowship.
As I stepped into the humid evening air at Uganda’s Entebbe Airport two weeks ago, I had no real idea of what I would experience.
Although it had been a long journey from the UK to Uganda, where more than one million Southern Sudanese refugees now live, there was a far greater distance between my expectations and reality.
Before dawn the next day we boarded a small internal flight to the dirt runway of Arua, HQ for the aid agencies delivering life-saving support to refugees in the north of the country.
This is no small feat; across the region are six vast settlements including the world’s largest, Bidi Bidi, which alone is home to more than 272,000 people.
Forced to flee their homes – some without belongings, or even shoes – they arrived in Uganda exhausted and terrified. Many will have witnessed and suffered extreme brutality. It’s impossible to imagine the terror of running through the bush for days on end, bodies piled up by the sides of the path, yet that’s the harrowing reality for thousands upon thousands of people.
I was there to visit the amazing work being done to serve these refugees as a guest of Christian NGO World Vision, which has been responding to the South Sudan refugee crisis in Uganda since 2014.
The charity has helped to feed hundreds of thousands of people, and ensured that more than 3,000 children who have arrived across the border alone – without any adult relatives to care for them – have a safe place to live with a foster family. It’s a huge task, but a vital one.
To see the work they’ve been doing, and the incredible improvements which have been made to the lives of some of the world’s most vulnerable children, was an immense privilege. Without the welcoming embrace from the Ugandan people and Government, as well as the support of NGOs like World Vision, there’s no doubt this would be a crisis spiralling out of control.
But as we headed northwards from Arua, World Vision’s Land Cruisers relentlessly bumping along red dirt roads, it became apparent just how isolated South Sudan’s refugees really are, and the scale of the task ahead of them.
Catastrophe in South Sudan, generosity in Uganda
This wasn’t my first trip to the region. I visited Juba shortly after South Sudan gained independence in 2011, and there was nothing but optimism in the air. Sadly, the country has since descended into bitter civil war, with millions displaced and forced to flee for their lives.
Thousands of people – including children – have lost everything, including their lives. Now, it’s difficult for people who have always lived there to stay, let alone for people like me to come and visit.
Neighbouring Uganda is a largely stable and increasingly prosperous nation, but historically has had severe troubles of its own. It’s almost certainly this painful past which has led the country to respond so generously to the humanitarian crisis seeping across its border.
When I arrived at Imvepi reception centre about two hours north of Arua, where refugees are first registered, the desperation of the new arrivals was obvious. But what was also clear was the compassion and respect with which World Vision staff were treating them. It was evident to me that working with refugees – not just for them – is paramount to World Vision’s work.
I was also pleasantly surprised, perhaps wrongly so, that the staff we met were almost all Ugandan locals. Amazingly, despite this huge influx of refugees stretching the country’s resources to breaking point, Ugandans are intimately involved both in working in the settlements and as part of the local host community, helping to integrate the new arrivals into the area.
It’s a startling display of generosity that I found undeniably humbling.
But it was one area specific to World Vision’s focus as a child-centred charity that was perhaps the most moving. In each of the settlements we visited, World Vision has set up child-friendly spaces. Around 60 per cent of South Sudanese refugees in Uganda are children – more than half a million in total – and it’s crucial they have a safe space to play and enjoy just being kids.
These spaces are also used as school rooms and for sessions where children receive psycho-social counselling to help deal with the trauma they’ve faced.
It was in one of these child-friendly spaces in Bidi Bidi that a little boy called Joshua came to say hello. He was clutching a prayer written on a piece of paper soon to be hung on the camp’s ‘peace tree’. The note read: “I pray to God to change the lives of the youths in the camp.”
I suspect that World Vision is helping provide the answer to Joshua’s prayer.
Hope for the future?
Only a year since Bidi Bidi opened, it is already becoming home. Hundreds of thousands of refugees are settling into northern Uganda’s sprawling landscape with makeshift shelters, but those who have been here for a while have already begun to build their own permanent huts to live in.
I was astonished by the Ugandan policy of allowing refugees to own a plot of land. Each family is given a small area, about 30x30m big, and encouraged to settle. They plant food, cultivate the land and make it a space that works for them. I realised that my stereotype of serried rows of tents was woefully inaccurate.
As this eye-opening visit drew to a close I couldn’t help but reflect on the wisdom of our graceful and knowledgeable local guide Moses. He was rightly proud of all that Uganda and NGOs like World Vision had achieved; but it was painfully obvious that, despite all the good work, more aid is required to truly tackle the momentous scale of this crisis.
I left feeling proud that as a UK taxpayer my money is being put to such good use: helping fund a leading Christian NGO as it serves those who have been left with nothing. To the refugees in northern Uganda, this funding means everything.
But we mustn’t pat ourselves on the back just yet. Our work is not done. Although the migrant crisis in Europe continues to dominate the headlines, we can’t and mustn’t ignore the humanitarian tragedy unfolding in the world’s youngest nation.
South Sudanese refugees deserve more from us. It’s time we echoed the generosity they’ve received in Uganda, and offered them a real chance of a brighter future.