Uganda: Joy comes in small packages
10 June 2013

A catering student decorates a cake as others watch during a practical class at the JRS Kampala compound. JRS runs a number of skills and vocational courses for urban refugees who reside in and around Kampala, Uganda. (Charles Njanga/JRS)
However just like any other asylum seeker Welishe showed up one morning at the JRS offices devastated, cold, hungry and poorly dressed with her four children.
Kampala, 10 June 2013 - Listening is a very powerful communication tool that is usually skipped in many settings. Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) through one of its core values emphasizes accompaniment and in doing so, its staff members are usually urged not to depart from the habit of offering a listening ear to its beneficiaries, especially listening to their stories of flight from country of origin, struggles in country of asylum, future aspirations and how they find joy and happiness in a seemingly hopeless situation.

The importance of listening made more meaningful through the testimony of one Welishe Mastaki (name changed), a 24 year old female Congolese asylum seeker from Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Mastaki is a single mother of four children aged 7, 5, 3 and 1 year old. They live in one of the suburbs of Kampala, Uganda. JRS first met this young lady in November 2011 a month after she had fled to Uganda. During that period of the year, JRS had run out of some of its emergency aid supplies, that is food and rent, owing to an earlier increase in influx of new asylum seekers. Therefore no material support was given to her.

A story of suffering. However just like any other asylum seeker Welishe showed up one morning at the JRS offices devastated, cold, hungry and poorly dressed with her four children. When listened to, she narrated the difficult situation she was going through, for example how for the last one month she had been sleeping on a veranda and surviving on handouts from well wishers on the streets of Kampala. You could clearly see and believe her story because of their disheveled appearance. So after listening to her and explaining what JRS could and could not offer to her she walked out of the office rather hopeful.

Three months down the road Mastaki showed up again at JRS offices, this time visibly happy, and cheerful with a twinkle of delight and optimism in her eyes. Quickly I noticed her out of the rest and called her to my desk; she greeted me with a wide smile and went ahead to tell me how things had changed for her and her children. She exuberantly told me, that after the little chat I had with her some time back she went to a local church of the Congolese community. There, she met a lady who took her in and helped her for the last three months, and that this friend of hers had been resettled to another country and would be leaving Uganda in a weeks’ time.

Beacon of hope. With the help of her friend she was running a small income generating activity of selling a native delicacy called "kwanga" (cassava floor mixed, molded and made to ferment) with the proceeds from this business she had managed to pay rent and feed her children. But most importantly what brought her back to JRS was to come and say thank you for having listened and advised her. She had just brought the feedback of what had transpired since the last time she was here and saying emphatically in her Congolese accented Kiswahili that, "kwa JRS wanapokea watu mzuri na wanasikiliza watu mzuri tena"…(at JRS, they receive people well and listen to them attentively) and for that she was grateful feeling encouraged to face any challenges ahead.

Since then to date Welishe comes once in a while to JRS seeking guidance or consulting on day to day issues in her life. For example she enjoys coming just to find out how our work is going on and many more reasons. This and many more experiences have always shed light on the importance of listening and our work in  support to refugees and other beneficiaries.

By Jennipher Malique, JRS Kampala Project Programme Assistant

JRS has been working in Kampala since 1998, responding to the urgent, unmet needs of newly arrived asylum seekers and refugees in vulnerable circumstances. For refugees fleeing conflict, civil unrest or oppressive political circumstances, the JRS Urban Emergency Programme provides information, food and non-food items, rent and medical assistance, transport and psychosocial support. JRS also offers English language lessons and vocational training courses to increase opportunities to earn a living and support themselves.