The Untapped Potentials of Refugees in Uganda
My name is Daniel Ameny, a 32 year old Congolese refugee in Uganda. I have lived 22 years of my life in Uganda since 1997. Through the years, I have witnessed and experienced great suffering, abject poverty, helpless dependency, inhumane treatment and denied opportunities by refugees in Kyangwali Refugee Settlement. This is not all, I have also experienced and witnessed great transformations, empowerment and affirmative actions by refugees to change the status quo in the settlement.
From my mixed experiences, I can say with confidence that, “anyone in any community can create positive change. All they need is that basic empowerment.” This belief is what led me and my friends to start Planning for Tomorrow Youth Organisation (P4T) in 2007. We were young boys and girls that would play together in the moonlight at the borehole (near Roki’s home in block 23), eat ripe mangoes on the community trees, and roast maize in “Maratatu” gardens. In these social interactions, we would also share stories about our home places in DRC as well as dream about returning home “next year” every year. The idea of founding P4T hit us hard when we realised that over 40,000 refugees like us who were living in Kyangwali at that time have been having similar dreams for the last 10 years. This meant that we needed to “feel at home away from home” as there was no hope of returning soon. This was not going to be about our small group, but starting a movement that would mobilize the community, awaken them to this fact, and encourage them to make use of locally available resources to develop themselves and live like they are at home already.
Dependency on relief agencies and complaints about their inadequate support was the situation in the refugee settlement that every refugee was fully knowledgeable about. All visitors would hear similar stories from anyone they talked to in the settlement, as if it was rehearsed. We wanted to change this narrative and so we started P4T with the mission of “Creating a healthy and self-reliant community with knowledge and skills”. We were young, we did not have funds like the relief agencies had, but we had the locally available resources in the community: energy and time of the youth and the general population, land, other environmental resources, and skillful people within the communities.
The hurdles we went through and the victories we celebrated at every step along the way is a story for another day. Our resilience and impact to date is proof that refugees can actually take care of themselves and that their initiatives can do tremendous work to uplift their communities if they are given the opportunities, resources and empowerment that other relief agencies have. They really have a lot of untapped potential.
In our work, we have learnt a number of facts about refugees: their skills, passion, sustainability, developments and torments.
1. refugees have skills - Before fleeing their countries to the countries of asylum, these people were involved in skillful activities for livelihood. These skills do not remain behind when they leave their countries. Unfortunately, both UNHCR and relief agencies are unwilling to exploit the skills of refugees to do construction works at their sites, artistic designs for their projects, plumbing and electrical services for their offices, and technical office jobs. Their inability to recruit even those that have studied and competently acquired educational qualifications of the host country sends a message that they are not interested in uplifting refugees.
2. Refugees are passionate change-makers - In the spirit that “every challenge is an opportunity for innovation”, we have seen refugees rise above the challenges facing them and their communities with inexplicable courage, energy, creativity and determination. In 2016, I was the chair for the umbrella body of 30 refugee founded initiatives reaching out to their population in different areas of education, community awareness, health, education, agricultural production and value chain management, and social rights activism among others. Majority started from scratch and won a few sympathisers from social media who would send some dollars to address some of the identified issues in the community that needed money. But with or without money, refugee initiatives in Kyangwali have impacted lives in uncountable ways, to the extent that the population prefer crying out to them. Their passion is faced with competition, instead of the much needed recognition, partnerships and support from donors and the international community.
3. Refugees Initiatives are sustainable - It is true that many initiatives collapse because of different factors but when I look at our own P4T and many other initiatives in Uganda, they have shown great resilience amidst difficulties. The beautiful part of it all is that, workers of refugee initiatives live within the community and so the lifespan of their projects do not end completely. Supporting projects designed by refugees is like planting a fruit tree that continues to provide shade and fruits to the people even when you are long gone. This is one thing I would like everyone involved in refugee relief efforts to remember.
4. Refugees bring developments - It is surprising how some host communities around the world hesitate to welcome refugees. As I earlier mentioned, refugees may lose their properties in the war but they do not leave their skills behind. Instead of worrying about the pressure on social services exerted by refugees, use the refugee doctors, nurses, teachers, engineers, counsellors, agriculturalists and entrepreneurs to improve service delivery in the refugee and host communities at a more affordable cost. In Kyangwali, the majority of these professionals never really get to practice their skills but even then, they still provide a market to products from the host population and produce food (agricultural) that is supplied to the entire country.
5. Protectors or tormentors - Refugee dignity is not a priority for most of the humanitarian workers; and this is a shocking truth because they are employed to protect refugees. We have witnessed inhumane treatments where women are beaten at service points, older people and pregnant mothers are pushed around, project beneficiaries are shouted at in the course of being helped, and speaking out, like this, is punished. One of the community leaders (Refugee Welfare Council Chairperson) who has only Congolese Education (in French) confessed to me how they are so helpless in stopping these torments, suggesting; “...you guys who have studied in english need to come out and advocate for the local person because the higher authorities do not listen to us, your leaders”.
In light of these experiences, I would recommend that:
Refugee relief agencies take advantage of the available skills in the community and reward them in merited job positions, and not only in volunteer positions with almost no pay as we see happening now.
Self -reliance initiatives for refugees should be prioritized by channeling investments into building skills and exploiting the existing skills in production and general entrepreneurship. This can reduce vulnerability in crisis situations like this COVID19 period.
Build capacity of refugee change-makers and invest in their initiatives. Most donors now require international agencies to implement in partnership with local organisations, which is a positive step, but more needs to be done in ensuring local organisations are refugee founded and considerations should be made to fund refugee initiatives directly.
Departments that require constant engagement with the community 24/7 such as the Community Services department should be run by refugee initiatives with support from UNHCR. The outside organisations do not feel the pain of the population alike.
Impact from the work of refugee initiatives should be documented in the UNHCR periodical factsheet just like it is done for every other organization in Kyangwali. They play a significant role in supporting refugees, without any direct funding. This should at least be recognised.
Refugee policy framework needs to be popularised in both the refugee and host communities. This will help everyone to understand their rights and duties as members of refugee and host communities. It would in fact be better to make it obligatory for all humanitarian staff to attend sessions on Uganda Refugee Act before starting to work with refugees.
Humanitarian workers need to be encouraged to handle refugees in a humane and dignified manner. Training should be conducted to build the capacity of staff to appreciate that refugees are their clients not their beggars, and therefore they need to be respected and protected.
I thank everyone who has given me this opportunity to share my story. Our work has always been so invisible to the world.
Daniel Ameny (Khalid)
P4T Co-founder and Executive Director
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