In Uganda, South Sudan refugees feel secure. Why that's not enough.

Around the world, as temporary refuge becomes long-term, the concerns and priorities of displaced people shift from survival to prosperity, and thus to education and jobs.

Howard LaFranchi/The Christian Science Monitor
Abuk Chagai, a widow and mother of five seen here in Kampala, Uganda with other refugees from South Sudan, says she is grateful for the security she now feels, but worries about providing a future for her children.

Like most of the other South Sudanese refugees gathered outside a modest pool hall in Uganda’s capital, Abuk Chagai wants it known that she is grateful.

The mother of five, whose husband was killed in their young country’s fighting, says she is grateful that when she took her family and fled, Uganda’s border was open to refugees.

Three years later, she says, she is grateful for the renewed sense of security she feels as she does her best to build a life for her children.

“We are safe here, because the security in Uganda is good,” Ms. Chagai says, seated on a concrete terrace outside the hall, a community meeting spot. “That is why we came here.”

That security, however, is no longer enough. With South Sudan’s renewed violence having dimmed prospects for the refugees’ return, the reality has set in that Uganda is very likely not a temporary refuge but a long-term home.  

As a result, the refugees’ initial fears for survival have shifted to worries over their earning enough to feed a family and getting their children into local schools.

The young widow with seven children in her charge – her own five plus two orphans she has taken on – has become both more demanding and more dour.

With her compatriots around her nodding in agreement, she says, “We have safety, but our future is worse. What good is safety,” she adds, “if we have no jobs and our children can’t go to school?”

In many ways Chagai’s story resembles those of not just the 285,000 (and counting) South Sudanese who have fled to their southern neighbor, but of the world’s record-breaking 65 million people who are currently displaced.

Many among this massive population adrift may have, at least, found better security than they left behind. But as temporary refuge gradually becomes long-term, if not permanent – whether it’s in a sprawling tent camp or a ramshackle Kampala neighborhood – the concerns and priorities of refugees shift from survival to prosperity, and thus to things like education and jobs.

“The reality is that someone who becomes a refugee today will stay a refugee for 17 years, so it’s no longer simply a matter of putting up tents and providing food and shelter,” says Charles Yaxley, spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Kampala. “Now it’s as much about people’s long-term needs and a coordination of humanitarian response with development.”

Uganda offers a good window into this transition.

Since an uneasy truce between rival factions in South Sudan was shattered a month ago, more than 60,000 refugees have streamed across the border. And they continue to arrive – last week by as many as 4,000 a day.

Uganda now has more than 600,000 refugees, ranking it eighth globally and third in Africa, after Ethiopia and Kenya, among refugee-hosting countries, according to UNHCR. If Kenya follows through on a plan to expel hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees by the end of the year, Uganda would very likely overtake it with the number 2 spot on Africa’s list of largest refugee populations.

Remembering Idi Amin

But Uganda is poorer than Kenya – its $570 per capita GDP is less than half Kenya’s – so accommodating a large and growing refugee population represents a significant burden. Still, the country known as the “pearl of Africa” has a reputation for welcoming neighbors fleeing conflict and oppression, symbolized by a large DRC-Congo refugee population and a northern border that remains open to the South Sudanese despite their rising numbers.

Part of the explanation for this openness to refugees is that many of the government’s top officials took asylum in neighboring countries during the terrorizing dictatorship of Idi Amin in the 1970s.

“Uganda when Idi Amin was in charge is still in the mind of lots of Ugandans, and many officials still talk about having been refugees themselves and being grateful for the welcoming they received during those years,” says UNHCR’s Mr. Yaxley. “From the president on down they talk about providing security to their brothers in their time of need.”

Another piece of the explanation is more self-interested. The government has sought to encourage local hospitality of refugee populations by providing incentives to local populations – like earmarking 30 percent of any refugee accommodation project for local economic development. Another program that seeks to foster integration of refugees into their new communities provides small-business start-up loans for projects proposed by refugees and Ugandans working together.

“We’re even seeing some districts of the country requesting to become refugee host districts” as a way to access the economic incentives, Yaxley says. Last week the government announced a project to distribute plots of land to up to 100,000 refugees in the northern Yumbe district. The project includes the 30-percent economic development incentive.

Tolerance, but little more

Yet as promising as those programs sound, the refugees back at the Kampala pool hall say the reality is very different.

“I had the idea to open a beauty salon, but my application for one of the income-generating loans was denied because I didn’t have Ugandans working with me,” says Poni Joyel, a South Sudanese widow and mother of two whose electric-red highlights suggest she knows a thing or two about up-to-the-minute hairstyling. “But I don’t think they understand how difficult finding Ugandans who want to do a small business with you can be,” she adds.

Most of the refugees say they feel tolerated in Uganda, but little more. Some complain of discrimination.

“If you go to the market and they realize you are Sudanese, you are given a different price,” says Rose Moses, a widow with children, like most of the others.

To eke out a living in the meantime Ms. Joyel sells tomatoes. She and two of the rare men among the group of refugees also founded an advocacy group – Rise for Refugees International Development Association, or RRIDA – to try to promote the interests of Uganda’s urban refugees.

Chagai dreams of becoming a tailor, but she has no sewing machine so instead she scrapes together enough to feed her family by washing others’ clothes.

Education is top concern

But after making sure their families eat, what worries these refugee mothers most is their children’s education. And nearly all of the refugees gathered on the pool hall terrace say they don’t have the money to put their kids in local schools.

“We have many problems, but the biggest is that our children are not in school,” says Chagai. She says none of the refugee mothers she knows makes enough to pay the fees that supposedly free schools charge for everything from books and paper to desk use and the required uniform.

Ugandan law guarantees refugees freedom of movement and access to education, but the mothers say the reality is different.

“When you ask about school they laugh at you, they say, ‘You left your country and now you are begging school here? No.’ They say, ‘We have our own street kids, why should we take yours first?’ ”

Joyel, the refugee organizer and would-be hair stylist, loses her usual bright smile when the issue of children’s education arises.

“Education for the children, even for us, is more important than where we are,” she says. “We feel we have failed if our kids are not in school.”

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