Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Refugees as a First Stop for Protection in Kampala

Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Refugees as a First Stop for Protection in Kampala

Article excerpt

Uganda is now the third-largest refugee-hosting country on the African continent, home to over 500,000 refugees.1 In Kampala, Uganda's capital, tens of thousands of refugees have come from surrounding countries and beyond, melting into city life. I myself am one of these self-settled refugees. I fled Rwanda and came to Kampala about ten years ago.

While living in the city offers a range of opportunities which cannot be found in the rural camps, refugees in Kampala are expected to be self-reliant - find homes, work and fend for themselves - with very little support from international aid agencies. Navigating this while adjusting to a new environment is a physical and emotional struggle for many refugees. In the absence of international aid, there are many things refugees do to support one another in day-to-day life, and this mutual assistance is vital as the front line of protection.

In my first few years here a friend had offered me a loan to pay for some training with a Ugandan jewellery maker who then, after training me, provided me with some materials to set up a small business of my own selling my jewellery designs around the city. I now work full-time at the Jesuit Refugee Service, an international organisation where I teach arts and crafts as livelihoods training for refugees. However, these technical skills that I pass on to my students form only a very small part of the overall support I am able to offer them at an emotional level or in friendly guidance. Outside my day-to-day role I spend evenings and weekends meeting refugees in need through several networks I have made in the city.

Support for refugees

Firstly, I create a space for therapeutic conversation about problems that people are often unable to express to others - topics that they might not be comfortable sharing with the authorities or with large, seemingly detached organisations. International agencies, with their financial, time and resource constraints, can rarely offer personalised emotional support, and short-term interactions with strangers are not conducive for anyone to share their personal struggles. Refugees know that they will receive the most effective and appropriate assistance by working with individuals who have already been through the same thing.

Critically, these conversations also help me to understand how I can best offer assistance to meet their specific needs. I ask myself: Do they need money from me, or for me to offer them a room in my house, or for me to arrange and escort them to various appointments? Or is it sufficient for me to simply offer advice - to direct them to helpful service providers, to suggest opportunities to earn an income, or to help them manage their finances? While this approach can be extremely time- and resource-intensive, it allows me to offer tailored assistance.

Secondly, I serve as a local 'guide' to help other refugees - especially new arrivals - learn how to survive in Kampala. The list of potential needs and services for these refugees is seemingly endless. These have included accompanying individuals to the police station when they are summoned, and informing them of their rights so that they are not abused by opportunistic officials; taking them to the hospital when ill, injured or pregnant; and helping with death certificates and burial arrangements.

Thirdly, I offer guidance and support to young school-age women, both refugees and Ugandan nationals. Women's rights are a serious problem here in Kampala but seldom discussed. …

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