‘Refugee is just a name’: one Ugandan’s quest to help her neighbors

Jean-Christabel Asipkwe is the executive director of a Ugandan organization called Community Empowerment for Rural Development, or CEFORD. Oxfam is working with CEFORD in several refugee settlements in Uganda. Photo by Jill Tipton/Oxfam
The support you give makes an impact in someone’s life who is very vulnerable. But more is needed. The numbers keep coming. It’s global. Not only Uganda—it cuts across globally. When you see a refugee, this is someone in need.
Jean-Christabel Asipkwe

The challenges her mother faced as a single mom inspired Jean-Christabel Asipkwe to take a closer look at the lives of women refugees fleeing South Sudan

Growing up, Jean-Christabel Asipkwe took a different path than many of her female contemporaries in Uganda, where girls often don’t get the same educational opportunities as boys. She went to school—all the way through a master’s program in public administration—and she has her mom to thank for that.

It was her mother’s experience —separated from her husband but remaining single and raising a child on her own—that helped open Asipkwe’s eyes to the struggles of other single mothers and their children as they fled across the border from South Sudan into Uganda. Were their challenges as refugees similar to what her mother, who was not a refugee, endured? The question formed the foundation of her dissertation on women-headed households and their unique needs in refugee situations. She studied families seeking safety in Uganda’s Adjumani District.

What Asipkwe learned more than 20 years ago still applies, and at its core the lesson is both simple and applicable across the globe: “Refugee is just a name,” says Asipkwe. “People still have knowledge and skills that we can all rely on.”

Today, that’s the message Asipkwe has brought with her to Washington, DC, where she is participating in an Oxfam-sponsored advocacy visit to impress on US legislators the vital importance of not cutting aid to programs that support refugees and migrants. With 65 million people around the world now forced from their homes because of violence, persecution and war, the Trump administration’s plan to slash international humanitarian and development assistance by 32 percent could have devastating consequences for countless people.

Asipkwe is accompanying a gathering of empowered women from across the US, known as Oxfam Sisters on the Planet, in making the case for Congress not to cut the US international affairs budget in fiscal year 2019, but fund it at its fiscal year 2017 level of $59.1 billion.


Neighbor helping neighbor

As executive director of a Ugandan-based aid group known as Community Empowerment for Rural Development, or CEFORD, Asipkwe brings with her a deep understanding of refugee issues. CEFORD, which recives funding from Oxfam for humanitarian response work and from the US government for longer-term development work, is helping refugees in several settlements in Uganda. The country is now hosting more than one million of its South Sudanese neighbors.

Though there are concerns about dwindling resources, especially trees used for firewood and construction, Uganda has a liberal policy when it comes to providing refuge for its neighbors. Families seeking safety are given a 30-by-30-meter plot of land on which they can build themselves a shelter and a latrine, says Asipkwe, while using the land that’s left for growing a bit of food. Some of the refugee settlements are enormous, such as Bidibidi, which now has more than 287,000 people. Nearby, Imvepi is sheltering more than 128,000 people.

Inside the settlements, vibrant markets have cropped up that provide both local people and some refugees an opportunity to launch small businesses catering to the needs of displaced families.

CEFORD is working in both Bidibidi and Imvepi, helping refugees get access to clean water, providing education on good hygiene, and training women in new skills—such as using beads to make jewelry or growing vegetables in a kitchen garden—so they can sell the goods and earn some income. Additionally, CEFORD has been training women to make reusable sanitary pads, which can be very expensive otherwise, and providing women with a place to discuss—and get redress for—problems related to sexual violence.

How do Ugandans feel about sharing their land and resources with so many others from a different country?

“There is acceptance,” says Asipkwe. She recalls the period in 1979 when the tides were turned and Ugandans were the ones who had to flee for safety to South Sudan and Congo in the turmoil following the ouster of the erratic Ugandan president, Idi Amin. “We have been refugees before, and we don’t know what will happen. We might also be refugees again. So receive your neighbor because this time your neighbor is in a problem, and next time this neighbor will be the one to receive you.”


The challenges they face

Through her studies and her work, Asipkwe knows the life of a refugee is filled with hardship, particularly for women. In Uganda, they are usually the ones responsible for caring for children, and often that responsibility extends beyond a woman’s immediate family—to the children of dead relatives or orphans with no blood connection, says Asipkwe.

For a refugee woman in charge of seven, eight, or nine children, Asipkwe says finding enough food to feed everyone can be one of the most serious challenges, especially when there are no income-earning jobs available to supplement whatever food aid there is.

When resources like wood for cooking fires become scarce, refugee women can face physical violence when they go searching for fuel. And living in temporary homes built from tarps or mud walls with no doors also presents security challenges for women, leaving them vulnerable to sexual threats, adds Asipkwe.

Understanding these realities, Asipkwe says her hope for her visit to Washington is to make sure legislators know how much US aid is helping refugees around the globe—and to impress on lawmakers and others that more needs to be done.

“The support you give makes an impact in someone’s life who is very vulnerable,” she says. “But more is needed. The numbers keep coming. It’s global. Not only Uganda—it cuts across globally. When you see a refugee, this is someone in need. This is a person who can still be useful in the community. So if you support this person then the person will get back and be able to live a useful life.”

Oxfam is pushing for wealthy countries to be more responsive to the global refugee crisis, and to do their fair share by responding to the needs of refugees. You can help.