Refugees: As Human As We Are

Water points are favorite play areas for children in rural areas. The pull could be because of the joy of drinking water that is clean and safe, the fascination of watching it fill up buckets, or simply splashing it all over the place.

Five-year-old Wini (Juba Arabic for Winnie) is no exception on this February day. One of the water points at the new Imvepi Base Camp in Arua District has become her play area. So mesmerised was Wini with running water that it took her a moment to tear herself away to respond to the question of where her mother was. Turning slowly, she points to the tented shelters meters away where the family spent the previous night upon arrival, having fled armed conflict in South Sudan. Wini says of her mother: “She is tired. Sleeping.”

Watching little Wini and her friends play with water tags at my heart. I can’t imagine the horror they have seen and have to live with. It is impossible to ignore how cruel this world is. Children all over the world should never be victims of war, there’s no justification for it. They only ask for comfort, safety and an opportunity to learn, play and grow.

Wini’s world is broken. She has seen, heard and knows too much at five. She has a traumatised mother, she walked for weeks on end dodging danger to access the safety of the Base Camp. She now has no home. She is just another number. Wini and her mother are officially refugees.

To many, a refugee is that person from another country depleting “our resources”.

It is that person who looks dishevelled and makes us feel a little uncomfortable that we often look away. That person we wish was invisible. However,the reality is that refugees are as visible as the rest of humanity.

Displacement due to civil strife is upon us now more than ever before. Therefore, it is imperative that citizens all over the world accept this reality and become proactive in finding lasting solutions to what is fast becoming a crisis for many governments. It is worth remembering that anyone can become a refugee.

Visiting Imvepi Base Camp has made the administrative component of Oxfam’s Humanitarian Preparedness and Response Programme come alive. It is a glaring reminder that every meeting, every decision, every plan is about empowering people.

Spending time with people who are positively affected by my decisions is a humbling experience. I watched the very first bus filled with children of all ages together with women and men arrive at the camp so exhausted that some had to be carried out of the bus after going for days without food. Others dropped dead in the queue before reaching the help desk. I also listened to their stories, their desire for safety, shared their pain and grief. Remarkably, even in these dark moments, I saw determination and the will to live and triumph in their eyes spurring me on to continue working.

Imvepi Base Camp was opened in February 2017, when Palorinya Refugee Settlement in Moyo District filled up. Imvepi has a capacity to shelter 135,000 refugees.

Oxfam’s response is centred on providing clean and safe water, food and ensuring protection of women and children. The sense of urgency among aid workers in the camp is inspiring. They work hard to ensure everything and everyone is ready for the arrival of refugees. Their commitment is an apt description of Oxfam’s call to be “humankind” because it is evident that what they do is not a job but a calling. It was also encouraging to see different development partners working together to meet the numerous needs. The needs are many and more resources, particularly funding, are needed to address them all.

Besides Imvepi, which was the latest home to new arrivals of refugees from South Sudan, I visited other settlements such as Bidibidi and Rhino Camp. Here, the atmosphere was calmer and lighter. Refugees were settled, even accustomed to visitors, because aid workers often visit them. Life seemed almost normal as seen through mushrooming small businesses, building of housing to escape the tents, and participation of women and youth in community development initiatives.

“Look! My hair is messed up! It’s a horrible day!” This would have been me on a normal day at the saloon, complaining about a life “problem”. Not after interacting with refugees for the first time and discovering the real perspective on life.