Uganda welcomes compassionately…
“You are welcome, our visitors!”
by: Karine Veldhoen
There is an untold story on the world stage; it begins with “You are welcome, our visitors!”
As I’ve traveled throughout Uganda on 13 trips, over the past decade, in diverse schools, in countless classrooms, I consistently encounter the greeting, in unison, with a chorus of sincerity, “You are welcome, our visitors!”
The greeting echoed through my heart as I visited my first refugee camp in Uganda, with an understanding the statistics. There are currently 800,000 refugees living in the country and 3,000 per day continue to pour across the borders from the South Sudan. These people are literally fleeing for their lives. They come only with what they can carry. They almost always arrive on foot. They lose some along the way.
Uganda welcomes compassionately.
Upon arrival the government offers a plot of land to the family and initial materials for the construction of a home. While generous and free, subsistence barely defines it.
Then, they must eat. The rations are slimming now. Support is being cut. My friend and colleague, Randy Sohnchen, is currently working with UNHCR to provide Omer Farm’s premium rice seed to the people of Bidi-Bidi, the world’s largest refugee camp. Bidi-Bidi is host to 270,000 refugees as reported 4 months ago.
The need is great.
Kiryandango is the refugee camp we sped through just 10 days ago. In the heart of Uganda, a city called Bweyale, you approach the camp by car and the plots with huts span across the hillside as far as you can see both left and right. There are 70,000 refugees in this settlement.
The Whitaker Peace and Development Initiative hosted our tour. They are passionate about cultivating peace through multiple modalities; their investment offers the best for children and youth. The community development site in the refugee camp just opened. It houses athletic fields, computer labs, and many more opportunities for advancement. Programs are offered with the thread of peace woven throughout, instilling this value in the young people of Kiryandango.
During our visit we were also introduced to a couple of Child Friendly Spaces. While most children do not attend school, some young children participate in a daycare facility in the camp where enrichment activities are hosted each weekday morning. The room I saw was a classroom for 208 preschoolers. The offering includes literacy, numeracy, parent involvement, and play! Still, I didn’t see one book.
There is a darker side…
My teammates and I explored different parts of the settlement. We struggled to capture images in the blur of the tour. Then, we met up in front of the second Child Friendly Space, where twice a week movies are the primary offering.
Children gathered at the side of the road as we connected. Pictures were snapped.
That’s when the settlement opened itself up to me and I peered into its pages of despair…
I walked over and without thinking opened the trunk of our van to grab some innocuous and immemorable supply. The children immediately swarmed like wasps buzzing their desperation. They were looking for something, for anything, I was going to pull out of that boot. Their need for bread, colour, or joy cracked open.
Ha! I’ve done it all: candy, clothes, toys, and books. Yet, today I offered nothing. By principle, Niteo is now careful never to offer gifts directly to children. Learning from our mistakes, we know it reinforces too many negative hierarchies and inappropriate mindsets.
Nonetheless, it’s been a long time since I’ve felt the distress of children pressing on me like I did in that moment. It was visceral.
The question laid bare.
If you were Mary Poppins and could pull something out of a proverbial trunk for those children, what would it be?
For me, it is education. I can’t think of anything better! We can join with the government of Uganda and chant, “You are welcome, our visitors!” We can make all the different in the world for another group of refugees!
We can support weaving the thread of peace throughout this settlement by offering books. Our offering, “Open books, Open minds, Open doors.”