Refugees In Uganda: Moving from Emergency Relief to Long-Term Sustainability [Pt 1]

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Written by Erica Shelley

Every Friday evening for the past four months, I have found myself taking a boda along the bumpy roads of Nsambya Kevina, a suburb of Kampala. I have climbed a thin metal staircase, brushed past a purple curtain flapping in the breeze, and stepped into the humming office of YARID, Young African Refugees for Integral Development.

Children gather around computers, adults are settled at the table with their laptops. A handful of men sit waiting with notebooks. I set up two small whiteboards and spend the next two hours teaching English.

There are usually eight to 12 students in this informal English conversation session. I am told that the numbers for the daytime English classes swell to 100. Almost all of my students are men, between the ages of 16 and 35. They are all Congolese refugees, trying to build dreams on what often feels like shifting sand.

Finding a Place to Call Home

According to the Humanitarian Innovation Project’s study entitled “Refugee Economies,” there are over 200,000 refugees in Uganda. Nestled in the heart of East Africa, the country acts as a pressure valve for different conflicts in the region.

“The Congolese are the largest number of refugees,” Robert Hakiza, founder of YARID and himself a Congolese refugee, explained. “The second largest group is Sudanese. Before the recent conflict in Sudan, the second largest group were Somalis.”

There are two types of refugees in Uganda: those who live in settlements, or refugee camps, and those who live in urban areas. Almost all of those living outside of settlements can be found in the nation’s capital city. The official number of registered refugees in Kampala sits at 38,000, but Hakiza and others estimate it to be 50,000.

It is precisely this demographic of urban refugees that Hakiza and his colleagues had in mind when they founded YARID in 2008.

“We saw the suffering of urban refugees in Uganda. The idleness was leading to criminal activities, and some of the girls were going into prostitution. We started having discussions on the football pitch,” Hakiza recounted, motioning to the neighborhood soccer field across the street. “We didn’t have any resources. We only had ideas.”

Founding YARID

The first idea was simple — they started gathering young people to play football, Africa’s favorite sport. Within a week, they had 100 young people playing together, locals mixing with Rwandan, Congolese and Burundian refugees. From there, other programs were sparked, such as English classes and functional adult literacy classes.

Before long, larger organizations took notice and came alongside the grassroots programs at YARID. The Pan African Development Education and Advocacy Programme, the Finnish Refugee Council, and the Xavier Project helped supply the resources needed to develop the work. In 2010, YARID secured the little office across from the football pitch and launched the Tamuka Hub, giving refugees in the neighborhood access to the Internet and offering courses in computer literacy and social media.

YARID’s office is in the Makindye division, the district of Kampala that boasts the highest concentration of Congolese refugees. Not far from the office lies the slum of Katwe, where the buildings of downtown Kampala can be seen above the tin shacks and even mud houses where refugees live. Unlike their fellow refugees in settlements, this vulnerable population is generally left to fend for itself.

“Urban refugees don’t receive any direct support from service providers,” Hakiza explained. “Most aid goes to the refugees living in the settlements.”

While life in a settlement means that your basic needs are met, most refugees would prefer to live in the city.

Why Aid Programs Aren’t Working

“In the camp, you are not free to move around. You have food, but life is difficult,” Jacques, one of my younger Congolese students, explained to me. Jacques is from Bukavu, a city in the South Kivu province of the DRC. In January 2014, Jacque’s family of ten crossed the border into Uganda. Although his father and mother had six sons and two daughters, they chose to move to Kampala rather than go to a settlement.

“In Congo, my father worked for a boarding school and was a pastor. Here in Kampala, he is still a pastor. My mother is involved in small business; she sells necklaces,” Jacques said.

Over and over again, I have heard stories of refugees who would rather fight to feed their families in the city than receive handouts in one of the settlements. Another student, Pauline, shared that he opted to support 9 family members in Kampala rather than return to the settlement.

“In the settlement, you’re isolated, you’re in a box,” Hakiza explained. Refugees, like Hakiza, who came from urban areas prefer to live in urban areas. Many move to the city in the hope that they will find job opportunities. This choice to move to the city is a choice to leave behind the direct aid given in the settlements, although on paper this should not be the case.

“The UNHCR — the UN Refugee Agency — Urban Refugee Policy was released in  September 2009. That policy says that refugees are free to stay where they want. If you choose to stay in an urban area, it will not stop you from receiving support from UNHCR or other service providers. The problem is that we have too many policies, but no implementation. The policy did not help change the lives of people staying in urban areas, things remain the same,” Hakiza said.

According to Hakiza, the current system of refugee aid is not helping refugees to become self-sustaining. The basic reason for ineffective aid is that it is focused on short-term relief rather than long-term development. While this approach is needed at times, it no longer reflect the reality of most refugees in Uganda.