Life in a refugee camp in Uganda
Did you know that nearly 21.3 million refugees worldwide live in a refugee camp, over half of whom are under the age of 18? Some of these people have lived in refugee camps for more than 15 years.
How is this possible?! Well it is possible and it’s happening now. Beyond the camps, there are more than 65.3 million people around the world who have been forced from their home, the highest number of refugees in history since WWII.
I know we have heard a lot about “refugees” and refugee camps these days. Refugee camps are sometimes called “settlements” to make it sound a little less awful. The reality is no one actually wants to live there.
I have been displaced but I never lived in a refugee camp before. Last year I decided to travel to Uganda to work with refugees and visit some refugee camps. I had some ideas on how refugee camps might look but being there in person was a different thing.
Trust me, it’s not a fun life at all!
I first visited Kyaka II refugee camp, then Rwamwanja, and finally to Nakivale. These camps are far from one another and from any major cities. They are mostly placed in forest areas making it hard to move to a city. Being there felt like living in an isolated prison.
So, what is it like to live in a refugee camp in Uganda?
First, you need to understand how people end up in a refugee camp. Refugee camps are made or set up for people who seek refuge in a different country for different reasons. Which lead us to first of all need to understand who is a refugee and how one become one.
A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.
Is it a choice or decision? I think you know the answer.
Getting a place in the camp involves a long registration process:
1. starting at the country’s border
2. then to a local police station
3. then to a local government office in charge of monitoring refugee activity
4. then to a camp commander (managed by the OPM – Office of the Prime Minister of Uganda)
5. you are then placed in temporary housing, usually a tent-like structure shared with others
6. after all this, you can be given a tent of your own
Upon arrival, the refugee is given:
1 small plot of land
2 plastic plates
1 garden hoe
1 machete for gardening
4 sticks for construction
1 shovel for digging
For food, a refugee (single person) will get this in one month:
1 kg. of corn
2 kg. of beans
½ liter of cooking oil
1 kg. of porridge powder
30,000-40,000 Uganda Shilling ($10-12 USD)
It was astonishing to see the struggle of people my age living in a refugee camp and living on such little for one whole month. You can ask a refugee how they live on these rations? They will answer, “by the grace of God.” People find a simple way to say there is no possible way they can live off of so little, yet their faith in God feeds them somehow. Some people out there still live by God’s miracle day to day.
On top of that many youth do not have access to education or employment. The majority of them do farm work and just hang around because there is nothing to do.
I remember sitting down with more that 20 youth under the age of 16 who lived in refugee camp for more that 10 years and had never been to school before. I sat down to talk to them and learn how they view their life. Their responses were astonishing.
I asked them, “What is your life dream?”
“Nothing,” they replied.
“What do you want to be in the future?”
“I don’t know,” they said.
“Don’t you guys want to be doctors, lawyers, the president, teachers or even soccer players?”
All of them kept silent. I also kept silent for a minute thinking they are trying to say something, yet nothing. Quickly my friend who arranged my visit whispered in my ear and said, “They don’t know what you are talking about.” I was choked up.
Then I continued with, “What are you guys good at?”
They exclaimed, “Farming!”
It was obvious what these kids did every day. They farmed. They woke up early every day to work for others.
These kids have lived with no purpose in life simply because they have not had the opportunities. They don’t know anything apart from the mountains that surround them. They have never been out of the isolation of the camp. They have never been to school to know what people can become in life. They’ve never experienced the outside world. These kids are stuck in life and have no clue of what life has to offer them.
Some of us will say it’s a culture or it’s a lifestyle, but its not. These kids are simply deprived of the basic human right to live like any other kids in the world.
What if this was your kid or your family? What would you do?