‘I will keep telling refugees’ stories until the world listens’
‘It wasn’t until I was back home in London, a few weeks ago, curled up in my boyfriend’s bed with the TV on, that the full weight of what I’d witnessed a few days earlier really hit me. I broke down completely; partly out of a fear that there was nothing I could do to help and partly out of guilt and gratitude for my privileged life. At that moment, I swore never to forget the people I’d met or the stories I’d heard in Uganda. I reminded myself of my promise to a group of young female refugees – that I would retell their stories until the world couldn’t turn its back on them any more.
‘Just a week earlier, I was in the back of a 4x4 in Uganda with Save The Children, hurtling towards Bidibidi, the largest refugee camp in the world and home to 270,000 people who have fled conflict in South Sudan. I had no idea what to expect and was shocked at the sheer scale of the settlements. Over one million refugees have fled South Sudan into Uganda since fighting between rebels
at the world’s largest refugee camp in Uganda
and government forces broke out in July last year – and more than half of them are unaccompanied children. I sat down with five of them and they eagerly told me how much they loved the Child Friendly Space where they learned maths and English.
In Impevi camp, an hour’s drive from Bidibidi and home to 135,000 refugees, I drank tea with 15-year-old twins Hope and Grace outside their tiny tent. Their dad is the only person they have left in the world, but he disowned them after Hope was raped by armed forces while they were fleeing fighting in South Sudan. Staring at the ground and playing with her hands, Hope told me she brought shame to him because the man who raped her didn’t marry her. Now Hope is eight months pregnant and Save The Children has placed the girls with a foster carer in the camp. They saw people killed before their eyes, yet they hope to return to South Sudan one day so they can get a proper education and make a life for themselves. I don’t know how you lose everything and still find the hope to continue. But they do.
It was the same with 17-year-old twins Ruth and Rose. They fled South Sudan, where they lived with their grandmother, in February. But during their journey Rose was shot in the leg by armed forces. Even so, they carried on and it took them a week to limp across the border on foot. Rose wiped away tears as she told me how they have no other family in the world and were forced to leave their grandmother behind because she wasn’t well enough to make the journey. Rose has nightmares every night that the soldiers will track her down and shoot her again. But she doesn’t let that get in the way of her ambitions and instead dreams of becoming Minister for Sport so she can get more girls involved in football. She’s even formed a girls’ football team in the camp and is nicknamed ‘Suarez’ because she’s so good.
I tried my hardest not to get upset when listening to their stories. I wanted to make sure I was a source of strength and support to them. Truth be told, they have more strength than I could possibly muster up in those dire circumstances, never mind the fact they’re only 15 and 17. It made me think of the desperately unfair disparity between our upbringings: at their age, I was at school being a normal teenage girl while these kids have lost entire families, are victims of rape and often orphaned with nowhere to call home.
Uganda’s hospitable approach towards refugees is truly inspirational. The UK Government is far more affluent and yet it could learn a lot from Uganda when it comes to accepting refugees and making them feel welcome. I wish Britain would take note and see how a country should really treat vulnerable people during a humanitarian crisis like this.
The harrowing stories I heard will never leave me, but neither will the remarkable resilience shown by everyone I spoke to. I promised I’d get their stories out there so I hope everyone sits up and pays attention to this. I won’t stop talking about it until they do. The trip made me realise how much more work there is to do in terms of raising money and awareness. I’ll be going back next year; this was just the beginning for me. To help, visit savethechildren.org.uk/uganda
I DON’T KNOW HOW YOU LOSE EVERYTHING AND STILL FIND THE HOPE TO CONTINUE
Adwoa with a threeweek-old baby born in Rhino camp and, left, at a Child Friendly Space in Bidibidi
Adwoa (with Rose, left, and Hope, below) also visited Rhino camp, home to 90,000 refugees. In all three camps STC run health clinics and learning programmes, as well as providing emergency healthcare, supporting the reunifying and foster care processes and offering psychological support and play camps to help children recover from trauma.