The plan was to visit a refugee community centre in Uganda; what I experienced was beyond something I had imagined – the refugee crisis.
Forget tents, forget thinking it was some soul-less structure that resembled a prison. Where I was taken was beyond the main streets and hidden behind the bustling, poverty-stricken clutter of living squatters of Kampala. It was about coming face to face with one of the most prominent issues of our time – the refugee crisis.
Here I would see the real Kampala and come face to face with the conditions and the daily struggles people face from across all borders.
Uganda’s refugee crisis
2016 was a defining year for Uganda and its role in the refugee crisis that currently plagues Africa.
Uganda is Africa’s third top refugee-hosting country after Ethiopia and Kenya, with people escaping violence and human right abuses from neighbouring countries Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and South Sudan. Surprising to many, Uganda has been named one of the most supportive places for refugees due to its “open door’’ policy which has enabled over 600,000 refugees and asylum-seekers to call Uganda home. Uganda’s policies can be deemed as unusually progressive and forward-thinking when it comes tackling the refugee and asylum-seeker crisis. Once a refugee status has been received, people have access to the same services as Ugandan citizens and have the right to employment and to contribute to the local economy.
Refugees are then integrated into host communities and can also enjoy freedoms of movement and are provided with small areas of land for agricultural use to lessen dependency on humanitarian aid. This pioneering approach allows those refugees and registered asylum-seekers to live safely and in dignity beyond emergency assistance and, most importantly of all, it provides a long-term solution.
Seeking permission to enter the refugee centre
We had to seek permission to enter the refugee centre hosting a small Somalian community. Calling it a centre is possibly too rich of a description; it was a nothing but a two-story worn-down rumble. According to UNCHR statistics, there are over 40,000 registered Somalian refugees in Uganda. I was accompanied by Luke, a worker for the non-for-profit organisation Slum Aid Project that assists people living in poverty. There was one person in charge of the building and the well-being of the tight-knit community.
Outsiders could not simply stroll in as they wouldn’t know its location nor its existence behind run-down shop fronts. Secondly, this wasn’t a place to exploit the lives of people and treat it as a human zoo. My reason for visiting this centre with Luke was to understand the realities of why people escaped their homeland, their struggles, and to find out on behalf of a wider community, from the sunny beaches of California to the igloos of Finland, what we can do to help these people to get out of their unfortunate situations.
Entering the refugee centre
After we were granted access to enter, my heart had already sunk by seeing the living conditions people faced. I followed a labyrinthine pathway, by-passing clusters of structures that remarkably people call home. I was then slowly lead upstairs of this open roof two-storey building, holding onto the unsteady iron railing to come face to face with a young mother sitting on the ground outside a doorway that was shielded from outside view by a long-draping cut of fabric.
The first person I met was a young single mother from Somalia in her early 20s. She was cooking a vegetable and rice dish with camping-like cookware with her young daughter sitting on the dirty concrete floor beside her. Luke, acting as translator, asked her how she came to be in Uganda. Quietly and confidently, she said she had no choice but to escape her abusive, violent husband. I bit my lip and shook my head. It was three years ago, she told us, that she made her daring escape. She did not know what happened to him but living in squalor was a better option than what she and her daughter ran away from. Without showing any emotion, she told us that her dream is to open up her own business; she just needed to be given a chance to break free from her current situation.
The woman in a world of pain
Down the staircase, I was invited to enter a small room. Small as it was, it was home to many. With one single and one double bed, five people were living in the room. The single bed was occupied by a lady with a liver tumour resembling a late-pregnancy and curled up in the foetal position. For her survival, she ideally needs to seek medical assistance every few days for treatment. I will never forget the eye contact we made – the look of despair and hopelessness in her eyes. She was in a world of pain.
Her family and friends around her advised that they do all that they can to raise money for this woman’s hospital treatments. I was taken aback. These people have little money themselves, yet they are putting this woman’s urgent needs at the forefront of their concerns – this was a pure act of benevolence.
It is truly heart-breaking to see not only do these people face fleeing their homes, finding a roof over their heads, and starting a new life, but also pre-existing medical conditions. I took this woman’s hand and advised her wholeheartedly I would do what I can to help her.
I did what I could to help the people there and then on the spot. One lady, in particular, told us about her son and then continued to lurk around while I spoke to the former two ladies. She wanted whatever I had on me, anything. Further, her request wasn’t forceful instead an act of desperation. I gave what I could – children’s books, sanitary items, and water. To me, it didn’t seem so much from where I come from as no extra thought is usually given to these items but for them, it meant the world that an outsider was willing to help.
A defining encounter
This visit was a defining learning experience – for it strengthened the belief in the resilience and optimism of humankind. Although I could continue with the theme of taking sorrow and the feeling of guilt of the realities in front of me compared to life back home – I won’t.
The time has come for education, not just for those in Uganda but those all over. Not only to retell the grim realities of refugees and asylum-seekers face but to reflect upon how we can do our bit to help and follow in Uganda’s footsteps in helping with the refugee crisis. Above all, let us help change the attitudes on ways to improve the refugee and asylum crisis with compassion and by providing possible long-term plans.