A Refugee Settlement is Different from What I Thought

For the first time, I visited a refugee settlement recently. Prior my visit, I was skeptical about which settlement I wanted to see. Bidibidi Refugee Settlement in Arua district has been marked one of the largest refugee settlements in the world so I thought it would give me a good understanding of the lives of refugees. My imagination of how a settlement looks like and how people live in there included so many miserable people living in small and congested houses. I also had a rough idea that a refugee settlement is different from a refugee camp, but could not clearly distinguish between a refugee settlement and host community.

Refugees are fully immersed in communities and are busy trying to make a living in this challenging situation. Because they do not carry tags for identification, one may not easily identify them. I expected to find the refugees wearing gloomy faces but I was surprised to find faces and voices of hope allover Bidibidi Refugee Settlement. What seemed obvious was the fact that the refugees have now come to terms with the situation, stopped counting their losses but have accepted to move on with life.

I was overwhelmed by the positive energy that refugees, especially women and youth have got. Engaged in various income generating activities like agriculture, tailoring, hair dressing, construction and bee keeping, they have improved their livelihoods and have become able to meet their household and family needs.

I met Boboya Innocent, a refugee youth who was supported by Oxfam to acquire construction and brick laying skills from a BTVET institution. Upon successful completion of the training program, Boboya and 13 other youths with similar skills formed a group called, Morjita Construction group in Bidibidi, which is now registered with Yumbe district. The group has received different contracts to construct houses for Persons with Special Needs (PSNs) in the settlement. An example is the contract from Peace Winds to construct 40 houses and another from Here is Life to construct 11 houses. The earnings have improved their livelihood standards and their ability to meet their needs. Boboya is now hopeful that one day there will be peace in south Sudan and he will be able to go back home. He says his skill will be even more relevant when he gets back home and he will make more money. He aspires to be an engineer given an opportunity to go back to school.

Listening to stories of different refugees, especially those who have benefitted from various humanitarian programmes was a clear reminder of how much can be done with little. This however is only possible if both refugees and the host communities have a positive attitude, if the environment is more enabling and if opportunities and resources to transform refugees’ livelihoods are available.

Government and development agencies like Oxfam are working to ensure that South Sudan refugees have a better place to stay in Uganda with hope that once peace is restored in south Sudan, people will go back to their home country. This however seems to be taking longer than expected as more refugees are being received, necessitating long term interventions in the refugee settlements.

Amidst all these uncertainties, my hope and prayer is that peace shall prevail in South Sudan sooner than later.