PAGRINYA REFUGEE SETTLEMENT, Uganda – Ayen looked directly into my eyes as she gripped her children’s hands tightly, calmly recounting the moment she was forced to flee her home in South Sudan in the middle of the night after rebels murdered her husband and eldest son in her presence.
“We came here because of hope. When we saw you, we knew we were safe.” Ayen gestured with visible relief to the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency logo on my T-shirt.
Safety is the first thing Ayen and her children and 190,000 other South Sudanese forced to flee their homeland since July find on reaching Uganda. Thanks to the Ugandan government and with the support of organizations like UNHCR, refugees are given a chance to start life anew, in dignity.
Refugees are provided with a plot of land to cultivate and materials to build their own homes, free access to Uganda’s health care and local schools, the ability to work, and freedom to travel. In addition to providing lifesaving aid to refugees upon arrival in Uganda, UNHCR and our partners are training refugees on critical job skills, including effective farming methods so refugees can maximize their incomes and grow their businesses.
Uganda is, in short, setting the 21st-century standard for how all countries can and should welcome refugees.
But as thousands of refugees flee a resurgence of murderous violence in South Sudan and life-threatening conflicts in neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, and Somalia, Ugandans need more support to help meet refugees’ basic needs until they are self-sufficient.
Uganda – itself rebuilding from decades of war with the rebel group known as the Lord’s Resistance Army – is now the third-largest refugee-hosting country in Africa after Ethiopia and Kenya. Thousands of refugees are crossing into Uganda each day, and 50,000 South Sudanese alone are expected to arrive by the end of 2016.
“The majority of new refugee arrivals are women and children who cannot easily cope,” Titus Jogo, refugee response coordinator with the office of Ugandan Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda, explained to me. “They need long-term support.”
Despite Uganda’s determined efforts to deliver it, that support becomes more challenging by the day as the rising influx of refugees puts a strain on community health services, schools, job markets, water systems, and local infrastructure and as Ugandan authorities address other pressing issues.
“The huge numbers… make planning for the effective and efficient delivery of services very difficult,” Jogo said, describing the determination of his country – a landlocked nation that has welcomed more than half a million refugees in recent years – to deliver economically-empowering solutions for refugees.
The bottom line? As more refugees continue to arrive daily, increased funding to support the coordinated response to the current refugee crisis is urgently needed. UNHCR, for example, has received just 33 percent of the funds needed to provide adequate assistance to refugees in Uganda in 2016.
In over a decade working in the space where U.S. policy in Washington intersects with the human tragedy of forced displacement in Africa, the Middle East and around the world, I have seen my fair share of the good, the bad, and the irrefutably ugly.
Never, however, have I been so powerfully impressed with any refugee response as I was with Uganda’s determined efforts to put 21st century refugee policies into concrete action – and to make both sustainable.
Though the outward circumstances of our lives differ in many obvious ways, Ayen and I are both mothers with dreams of safe, happy, healthy futures for our children and ourselves.
And as I stood before her a few weeks ago under a blazing sun in northern Uganda and listened to her story, I was moved deeply by her strength and by the generosity of the Ugandan people who welcomed her with open arms.
In a world that is increasingly tightening borders, erecting fences, and implementing restrictive policies towards refugees like Ayen and her children, Uganda’s innovative model of welcome is a beacon of light.
This is what humanity can and should look like. Now is the time to help Uganda help us all remember this.
Tessa Valk-Mayerick is an Assistant External Relations Officer for UNHCR in Washington, DC. To learn more about UNHCR’s work in Uganda, visit: http://www.unhcr.org/afr/uganda