REFUGEES RESTART LIFE, ONE STITCH AT A TIME

Away from South Su­dan, they are de­ter­mined to start a new life by learn­ing new skills

The East African - - NEWS - By JONATHAN KAMOGA Spe­cial Cor­re­spon­dent

Nicholas Ngota, a South Su­dan refugee in Uganda, is one of the 100 stu­dents study­ing vo­ca­tional skills at the Sipiri Cen­tre, which teaches tai­lor­ing, cater­ing, weld­ing and build­ing con­struc­tion to refugees and the host com­mu­nity.

There was eth­nic cleans­ing in sev­eral ar­eas ... us­ing star­va­tion, gang rape and the burn­ing of vil­lages.”

Nicholas Ngota’s dream of be­com­ing a jour­nal­ist seemed to to be com­ing true when he got a job as a young re­porter and an­chor at a local ra­dio sta­tion in South Su­dan’s Ka­jukeji vil­lage in Yei River State.

The op­por­tu­nity to get a plat­form to prac­tise what he had al­ways wanted to do since his early se­condary school days, had fi­nally pre­sented it­self.

“I wanted to prac­tise the pro­fes­sion at the high­est level and maybe be­come a cor­re­spon­dent for one of the in­ter­na­tional news agen­cies. I said to my­self that if I ever made it there, I would have made it in life,” the tall, mus­cu­lar 24-year-old Ngota says with a smile on his face.

His dream was, how­ever, cut short by the sec­ond break­out of the civil war in 2016 when a power-shar­ing deal be­tween Pres­i­dent Salva Kiir and his Dr Riek Machar failed.

Pres­i­dent Kiir had ear­lier in 2013 sacked Dr Machar as first deputy pres­i­dent, ac­cus­ing him and 10 oth­ers of plan­ning a coup, plung­ing the world’s youngest coun­try into a war that has seen over a mil­lion refugees flee into neigh­bour­ing coun­tries.

Ngota is just one of those who in 2016 came and set­tled in Rhino camp’s Siripi set­tle­ment in Uganda’s district of Arua.

Eth­nic di­men­sion

Ngota’s plight wors­ened when the war, which had al­ready taken on a dis­tinctly eth­nic di­men­sion reached his home town, which had un­til then been peace­ful.

In a state­ment in Novem­ber 2016, the head of the UN Com­mis­sion of Hu­man Rights in the coun­try, Yas­min Sooka, at the end of a visit noted that there was a steady process of eth­nic cleans­ing un­der­way in sev­eral ar­eas of South Su­dan us­ing star­va­tion, gang rape and the burn­ing of vil­lages. The gov­ern­ment dis­missed the al­le­ga­tions.

Ngota said gov­ern­ment forces raided vil­lages, tor­tured and killed peo­ple in the night and re­port­ing about such in­ci­dents be­came risky for jour­nal­ists like him.

“Most of the roads started sport­ing road­blocks. You would wake up to find the dead body of a friend you talked to only last night,” he said sink­ing his face in his palms.

“When we re­ported about it,

Yas­min Sooka, head of the UN Com­mis­sion of Hu­man Rights

we got numer­ous threats of ar­rest and for those who were ar­rested; the chances of sur­vival were min­i­mal.”

The de­ci­sion to leave the coun­try came when he be­came a wanted man af­ter read­ing about a group of peo­ple killed by gov­ern­ment sol­diers, who were burnt us­ing plas­tics to stoke the flames.

For about two weeks, with his younger brother and sis­ter, they trekked to Uganda, leav­ing their par­ents be­hind.

To this day, they have not com­mu­ni­cated with them.

“We were not used to sleep­ing like this. We used to have enough food, but we lost all our prop­erty, clothes… ev­ery­thing,” he says.

Skills development

Now Ngota, the for­mer jour­nal­ist, is pur­su­ing a six-month course in cater­ing at the youth skills development cen­tre in Siripi camp, a new ca­reer he hopes will help him turn around his for­tunes and also fend for his sib­lings.

Ngota is one of the 100 stu­dents study­ing vo­ca­tional skills at the cen­tre, which teaches mainly tai­lor­ing, cater­ing, weld­ing and build­ing con­struc­tion to refugees and stu­dents from the host com­mu­nity.

The en­thu­si­asm at the school is ev­i­dent in the class­rooms; the busy stu­dents are so in­tent on their cur­ricu­lum they even fail to no­tice a new en­trant.

“Some­times, we have to re­mind some that it is lunchtime,” an in­struc­tor said.

Even in cour­ses like car­pen­try, weld­ing and build­ing con­struc­tion, which many would see as ap­peal­ing to only men, you will find fe­male stu­dents like 22-yearold Lucy Le­nia.

Gun­men, ar­son­ists

Siripi cen­tre is run by Ger­man NGO Welthunger­hilfe and re­ceived fund­ing from Bel­gium’s En­abel through the $6.5 mil­lion Euro­pean Union Trust Fund for Africa’s sup­port pro­gramme for refugee set­tle­ments in north­ern Uganda.

The fund is de­signed to sup­port 70 per cent refugees and 30 per cent of the host com­mu­nity.

Most of the refugee stu­dents are for­mer pro­fes­sion­als in dif­fer­ent fields and busi­ness peo­ple but be­cause of the new chal­lenges life threw at them.

They are all try­ing out some­thing new in or­der to ei­ther sur­vive in the short­run or ap­proach life af­ter the camp with a new skills set.

Take 25-year-old Joseph Lo­moro for ex­am­ple, a fa­ther of two who back in Langa, Cen­tral Equa­to­rial, used to im­port mer­chan­dise for a whole­sale shop he jointly owned with his brother with whom he es­caped to Uganda.

As the war raged on, their lives came un­der threat when gun­men looted their shop and on sev­eral oc­ca­sions tried to kid­nap one of them for ran­som.

Fi­nally, their premises were de­stroyed by a sus­pected ar­son­ist.

Un­der the tree where the car­pen­try class is hold­ing a prac­ti­cal les­son on this hot af­ter­noon, Mr Lo­moro is saw­ing a piece of wood with a se­ri­ous look on his face.

“This is all I can do now. Dur­ing the war, we lost a busi­ness that was worth $25,000 and here we are with noth­ing com­pletely. I can­not just sit in the camp when there is an op­por­tu­nity to learn some­thing new that could help me,” he says.

While his brother, who too has a wife and two chil­dren, does not seem to have wo­ken up to their new­found re­al­ity, Mr Lo­moro says that given the re­duced food ra­tions pro­vided by the UN World Food Pro­gramme, they may not be able to feed their fam­i­lies if the sit­u­a­tion does not change for the bet­ter.

With a small start-up kit promised at the end of the course by the cen­tre, Mr Lo­moro does not think he will re­turn to their whole­sal­ing busi­ness be­cause “it is im­pos­si­ble to start again.”

He has made up his mind to start off by mak­ing or re­pair­ing fur­ni­ture for peo­ple in the camp un­til peace is re­stored in his home­land.

Im­mi­nent re­turn

Whereas the ini­tial em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­nity for the Siripi stu­dents is the camp it­self and neigh­bour­ing towns, many hope that the skills they learn will be a start­ing point when they re­turn home.

Ac­cord­ing to Ge­of­frey Droma the prin­ci­pal of the cen­tre, most of his for­mer stu­dents work in neigh­bour­ing towns af­ter in­dus­trial train­ing.

“We fol­low up on them when they go for in­dus­trial train­ing at pri­vate en­ter­prises in other towns. A large num­ber of them are re­tained. Oth­ers work in groups like the tai­lors and con­struc­tion, of­fer­ing their skills in the camps,” Mr Droma said.

Even with the South Su­danese war­ring fac­tions agree­ing to a cease­fire and sign­ing yet an­other power-shar­ing agree­ment last month, most of th­ese who have worked here are not yet will­ing to re­turn home un­til the sit­u­a­tion sta­bilises.

Pur­suit of ex­cel­lence

Mr Ngota, for ex­am­ple, is no longer in­ter­ested in do­ing jour­nal­ism, say­ing he does not ex­pect the sit­u­a­tion for jour­nal­ists like him to get any bet­ter.

He wants to ex­cel in his new field of study, hos­pi­tal­ity.

“They will still be look­ing for jour­nal­ists to si­lence, so I do not think of go­ing back now. I want to work here, make some money and when I have enough and re­alise the sit­u­a­tion is okay back home, my sib­lings and I will go back and maybe I will open a res­tau­rant,” he says.

Mr Lo­moro too does not plan to re­vive his whole­sale busi­ness any more. He be­lieves that it would take a lot of time and money, which he does not have, to build the kind and size of en­ter­prise he and his brother owned.

He has opted for car­pen­try but first, he has to mas­ter his art here in Uganda and will not move back home yet, for “war could still break out.”

Pic­ture: Jonathan Kamoga

25-year-old Joseph Lo­moro (left) with fel­low refugees learn car­pen­try at the Sipiri camp in Arua, Uganda.

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