In Pursuit of a New Identity
“The only thing that keeps you going when you are a refugee is hope, for better days and peace. I know this because I have spent the biggest part of my life as a refugee.” This are the first words that 30-year-old Oyet Mathew a refugee from Torit in South Sudan spoke to me just after we had settled down for a brief chat in his shelter within Bidibidi settlement. Mathew first came to Uganda in 1993 when he was about 8 following a major Sudan government offensive against the Sudan People’s Liberation Army in Torit. His mother was killed in these clashes that left many displaced.
Mathew grew up in Uganda until 2010 when the family decided to repatriate back home settling in Torit, Eastern Equatorial. He was later to meet his wife and together they have 3 children. He also managed to get a teaching job given that he had acquired education while he was in Uganda. To him life had new meaning, he had his identity back and he was determined to make the best out of it until disaster struck again this year. He has been in with his family for close to two months now. This is not the first time he is a refugee in Uganda.
In July 2016, fresh clashes erupted in Juba leaving thousands of the city’s residents like Mathew displaced. Unlike before, this time everyone looked up to him for safety, his family, his brother’s family and his ailing father. He used his motorcycle to ferry his young family to safety – He rode his children and wife through a bush until they made it to the Ugandan boarder, he then rode back to pick his brother’s children and wife while his brother stayed watching over their ailing father. Before he could head back, he was strongly warned by many that the fighting had got closer to his home in Torit and he would not make it back alive – he made an attempt but returned midway when he realized it was not safe anymore. This was the most difficult situation he had ever experienced in his life- his family waiting to cross to Uganda and an ailing father on the other side. He still hopes to go back soon to look for his brother and father because he believes they might still be alive. It’s harder when you are a parent; your young children look up to you and if you can’t provide for anything, you feel like you have failed them. This is why I cannot just give up yet.. Mathew continues saying.
Mathew is currently working as a volunteer community mobiliser with Oxfam/CEFORD given his bilingual skills but also his friendly personality that has already got a number of refugees to trust and listen to him. His work involves around mobilising the refugees for sanitation and hygiene sensitization sessions. He says this has helped him a lot – having been a teacher, he loves to be doing something especially if it involves talking. He is happy to help out given that he understands what it means to be a refugee
“I am lucky I have some level of resilience and from the volunteer work I do, I sometimes get some little allowance that has helped a lot but even then sometimes the situation weighs down on me because the children are yet to understand what we are going through. I feel so concerned for the many women around who are on their own, even constructing a shelter is a big challenge yet they have children. I try to help out where I can but as individual you can only do so much.”
“I hope to become more useful to this community maybe by putting my teaching experience to use. At a point of depression, I look at my family and realize how much they look up to me so I keep going while I strongly hope that things will change here but also back home. What gives my children an identity as South Sudanese is our culture, our country – we need it back.