By Kristin Barlow, ChildVoice Director of Programs
During a recent visit to the Lukome Center, I traveled with other ChildVoice staff to Invepi Refugee Camp in Yumbe, Uganda (northwestern side), the newest camp for South Sudanese fleeing their country. It opened February 14, 2017, and already is home to more than 35,000 refugees. We went to register four of our South Sudan students who had joined ChildVoice before war broke out in their homeland. Once they graduate and leave the Lukome Center, they can't go back to their homes — people are dying in their home village of Yei every single day — so they have to officially register as refugees.
The process of registering is long and confusing. On average it takes a week, start to finish. We had already gotten some paperwork started, so it only took us a few days. We didn't know quite what to expect before getting to the camps; I had read about the services being provided and heard from others a bit about the camp conditions, but none of it prepared me (or any of us) for what really was happening on the ground.
On the first day, within minutes of driving into the camp, Keji (one of our students) saw one of her aunts. She yelled to the driver to stop. The old woman came right to the car, right up to the back window where Keji was sitting, pressing her face against the glass, eager to see if it really was her niece. We opened the door as fast as we could and Keji jumped out of the vehicle. They embraced and the tears flowed, as both women cried much more than you typically see in East Africa (people who rarely cry in public). I don't think they knew what to do at first; both were just in shock at seeing each other. But then the questions came, and more tears, as they heard each other’s stories. This aunt had escaped from South Sudan, walking for ten days with some of her family, but because she was older, she got separated from everyone and was trying to find them in the camps.
The day continued like this. Keji met about five other family members, and each meeting brought tears of joy and sorrow, hearing the stories of those who had escaped and finding out who had passed away. This is the reality of life for the South Sudanese refugees; families are completely scattered, trying desperately to reunite and praying that they still have family alive somewhere.
The third day we were there, we drove up to the gate and could tell something was wrong — we had just missed a violent demonstration at the camp headquarters. The people there were going on two days without any water. Again, our students surprised us, as they started taking all the water we had with us in the vehicle and giving it all to the refugees. Our hearts sank. The day before, the girls had been given their monthly "rations" as official refugees, beans, posho, and cooking oil that was supposed to last them 30 days. If they had actually had to live off that food, if would barely have fed them for a week. The people we saw in the camp were literally dying of hunger and thirst.
It was a very quiet ride home from Invepi Camp, as the stories we heard from the people we spoke with lingered in our thoughts and hearts. We heard things like, "We are ready to go back to South Sudan and die in the war in our own land, rather than starve in the camps." We couldn't shake these voices.
Some of the girls left the refugee camp with renewed determination to go back and help their people. Others left feeling complete hopelessness and even guilt, mourning for their country and their loved ones. A few were angry, wondering why their country is suffering so. Others of us could only cling to Jesus and the words of our Lord, reminding us how much He LOVES the poor, the desperate, the broken, the refugee. How Jesus Christ came to earth with nothing and lived with nothing for most of His earthly life. How he commands us all to love and care for these people, because He desperately loves them.
As our team processed through how we could possibly help these people at Invepi Camp, an idea surfaced. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has told us that more than 85% of the refugees fleeing are women and children under the age of 18, and a significantly high percentage have experienced sexual violence. The answer to how to help just might be Child Mother groups, something ChildVoice was involved in ten years ago when we first began in northern Uganda.
Child Mother groups in the IDP (internally displaced persons) camps have played a significant role in meeting the psychosocial needs of highly traumatized girls. So our staff was very excited about the idea of raising up such groups for the South Sudanese girls within these current refugee camps and offering our specialized skills to them, as it was clear nothing was being done to help the thousands needing such support. We pray these programs will give much-needed hope to the refugees who participate.