Uganda: urban refugees face special challenges
10 March 2016

Fr. Kevin White S.J.
We know English is important, but so is the new language that is required — computer literacy.
Washington DC, 29 February 2016 –  Despite popular believe that most refugees are confined in rural settlement camps, the reality is that more than half the world’s displaced people live in cities. And for many urban refugees far from home, the experience can be frightening, as they’re often cut-off from family and support networks, have little or no resources and lack the jobs skills to make ends meet.

Fr. Kevin White, S.J., director of Jesuit Refugee Service in Uganda, knows this all too well. Based in the country’s bustling capital, Kampala, he oversees educational and vocational programs that provide refugees there the tools, skills and resources needed to help them navigate city life and become more self-sufficient.

“These people are heavily traumatized, left everything behind, and they just need a sympathetic ear and a presence with people who can recognize their dignity,” Fr. White told Jesuit Refugee Service/USA during a visit to Washington, D.C. earlier this year. “And so we do that, and I think we do that well.”

Because of Uganda’s unusually liberal policies toward non-citizens, refugees are allowed to legally work in the country. “I suspect Uganda is so generous toward refugees because they have suffered recently in their past, so they know what it’s like to be a refugee, Fr. White said.

JRS in Kampala offers comprehensive educational and vocational training to help refugees learn skills needed to find and secure a job.

 “It’s an effort to allow our beneficiaries who come to Kampala to take care of themselves and their families and have a skill so that they can find employment within Kampala,” Fr. White said.

Last year more than 280 refugees participated in one of the vocational program’s five areas: arts and crafts, catering, carpentry, tailoring and fashion design, and hairdressing. The courses not only provide critical training but also foster a sense of community and belonging among the participants.  

“There’s a real nice spirit among our beneficiaries who spend some time in our vocational training programs,” Fr. White said. “It might be too strong to say it’s like a ‘family’ but there certainly is a comfort level and it’s a home away from home at our compound.” 

Among the greatest needs for refugees hoping to live abroad is English language training. To help, JRS offers an extensive English language program for more than 250 students.

“There is a great desire of many of our countries is to be resettled to Canada, the U.S. and Europe, and English would be a big help for them,” Fr. White said. “It strengthens their ability to adapt to their new communities, especially in the event they are resettled, so that they no longer will be dependent entirely on their host countries. It’s another way that we’re working for justice that we give these people the skills they need so that they can sustain themselves and take care of themselves.” 

Computer training courses also are popular at the JRS Kampala compound.

“We know English is important, but so is the new language that is required — computer literacy,” Fr. White said. “So we’ll be moving to that area more fully.”

And while new arrivals in Kampala often must wait several months to secure official refugee status, JRS in the meantime offers emergency support, such food rations, help paying rent and minor medical care such as prescriptions and eyeglasses.

Fr. White also spoke about JRS’s new Global Education Initiative, the need for accompaniment and what North Americans can do to help refugees in East Africa.(Listen to audio of the complete interview below)

Question: JRS has launched its Global Education Initiative, which aims to double the number of people served in JRS education programs by the year 2020. Can you talk a little bit about how education, for youth particularly, gives them structure in addition to providing them hope for their future?

Fr. White: 2016 is an exciting time for JRS in Uganda as we’re going to return to Adjumani (near the Somali border). I don’t want to say that that’s good news because we have to return to Adjumani to meet the needs of the South Sudanese (refugees) who sadly have had to leave their country once again. 

Yet JRS is happy to respond to this great need of education in the north … JRS has a great reputation – not only among Ugandans but also with the Sudanese who knew us from our time in southern Sudan. And it’s just a great opportunity to give structure and some accompaniment and healing for the South Sudanese who are now living in these settlements. It’s also an opportunity to help form a new generation of South Sudanese so that we can break some of this cycle of trying to resolve the tensions, the disagreements, with violence and with going to war…

There (also) is a lack of secondary education. As many NGOs have moved into primary education, secondary education has been less resourced, so that’s where we’ve been trying to go. With this Mercy in Motion campaign it’s a wonderful opportunity to meet the needs of these young people.

Q: Do you have any success stories of refugees becoming self-reliant through JRS vocational programs?

FW: Refugees and beneficiaries continue to return to us to express their gratitude, and that’s a real joy to hear and it makes us recall the importance of the work that we do. We have on staff three former students of ours through the English language-training program who now are staff and are giving back what we were able to provide them. So that’s a great success story of intervening at a time when people are in need, giving them the skills, getting them on their feet. And not surprisingly they want to return what was given to them.

Q: You touched on a little about Uganda’s fairly open polices toward refugees and helpful polices. Are there ways that that can be emulated in other countries in eastern Africa?

FW: We’re in close contact with our colleagues in our regional office in Nairobi, specifically in regards to our advocacy part of our mission to see what we can to do help replicate the generous refugee policies that Uganda has. We’re working on that… It’s not easy, I’ll be frank. And we don’t want to get too enmeshed in politics, which can be complex. But we continue to speak on behalf of refugees, making sure that because it works well in Uganda it could work as well in our neighboring countries in the region.

Q: Accompaniment is one of the core missions of JRS. Can you talk a little bit about what accompaniment is and how that guides the work of JRS with refugees?

FW: Beneficiaries have many needs. But I think the greatest need is for us to remind them … that they have great dignity as a human person and that none of us — whether we’re sitting here in Washington, D.C. or in Uganda or Kinshasa or wherever we come from — would want to be a refugee. So we meet them in their need and remind them that they have a great dignity and that we’re here to help them. It’s hard to pin down and define, but it’s easily seen and the fruits of which are abundantly evident too. If we have to close the office, for example, for a training program, the refugees complain. They want to come, they want to come and receive the training we offer, they want to come and meet their fellow beneficiaries and their classmates…

Part of that too is prayer. There’s a faith community. We gather for worship — all are welcome – once a month. We have celebrations. Through some generous donors we’re able to mark World Refugee Day, or World Women’s Day. All of these things are extracurricular activities, they’re not a skill that we’re imparting, they’re not an emergency food ration that we’re giving, we’re not advocating for a strengthening of refugee protection in neighboring countries. But they are really important times to come together to animate that core principle of JRS, which is accompaniment.

Q: Anything else you would like to talk about?

FW: Just a word of gratitude for the great work that JRS North America region is doing. A great expression of gratitude to our donors who continue to give generously so that we can continue to do the work we do on the front line. I know that not everyone is able to be in Kampala to work with refugees on the front line. But by your prayers and your gifts you are as much a part of the work in Kampala or any other region of JRS in making this work of the Society of Jesus come to life and make a difference in the world. We do make a difference. Sometimes we do get discouraged with all the challenges that we are facing. But I’m here to say that the work is going on, and it’s going well.

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