FRED DE SAM LAZARO, correspondent: Nakhivale, in southern Uganda, looks like any other dusty rural African town. What’s remarkable is that almost none of its 113,000 residents are Ugandan.
Ethiopia? (Hand goes up.)
All of these grade school children and their parents are refugees—
Rwanda? Burundi? Congo? (Many more hands up.)
All told, 13 nations are represented in this crowded Nakhivale school, their families fleeing conflicts across a wide swath of East Africa and finding haven in what must rank as one of the world’s most hospitable countries to refugees.
In Uganda refugees are placed in settlements and not camps, and the government says there’s an important difference. Camps tend to confine people, whereas in Uganda when refugees arrive they are issued legal IDs that entitle them to go anywhere in the country to find a job, start a business, put their children in school.
Refugees in rural areas are given a small plot of land to farm. Others migrate to the urban areas. Among the earlier arrivals in recent years are Somalis.
Their enclaves in the capital, Kampala, are well established with small businesses and mosques, a predominantly Muslim community in a mostly Christian nation. Mohammed Abdi runs this grocery story with his partner, Zahara Hassan.
MOHAMMED ABDI: We have very many Ugandan customers, and we are friends. I am one of the Somali elders in the community, and we interact with the elders of the Ugandan community, whether leaders in this distract or region, and we are friends, and they welcome us. We’re very happy. We’re like one people.
DE SAM LAZARO: And one scholar who’s studied refugees in Uganda says there’s reason to be happy.
ALEXANDER BETTS (Professor of Forced Migration and International Affairs, University of Oxford): We showed in the capital city of Uganda, Kampala, 20 percent of refugees own businesses that employ someone else. And of those they employ, 40 percent are citizens of the host country. So refugees can contribute to the host societies that they’re part of.
DE SAM LAZARO: Oxford University’s Alexander Betts says Uganda is the exception in a world where refugees face widespread hostility, often stoked by politicians.
PROFESSOR BETTS: it’s all too easy to have a race to the bottom in terms of political standards, where provincial and municipal politicians or national politicians say, “These people are a burden; we have to keep them out.”
DE SAM LAZARO: And while many politicians, especially in western democracies, must tread carefully on this issue, Betts says it’s not a problem in Uganda, where one man rules virtually unchallenged.
PROFESSOR BETTS: President Museveni has been able to adopt refugee policies that are a little different, in part because there are lower standards of accountability to the public. Now, not having democratic standards is definitely not something to celebrate, but it highlights the difficulties for democracies to open up their economies to non-citizens.
DE SAM LAZARO: Recent history might also account for Uganda’s hospitality to refugees. President Yoweri Museveni himself lived in exile for years during and after the bloody dictatorship of Idi Amin. Museveni’s rebels took power 30 years ago. Zac Niringiye is a bishop in the Anglican Church of Uganda.
REV. ZAC NIRINGIYE: There’s been a history of violence, conflict that often has turned violent in this region—South Sudan, Rwanda, Burundi, even Congo and even Uganda. I think that that has created a sense of being hospitable, because you never know; it may be your turn next. There’s a proverb in my own language that says when a stranger pulls into your compound, no worries, because they are not strangers forever. Soon they get integrated, and they know what not to do in the compound.
DE SAM LAZARO: Despite praise for its hospitality, life within that proverbial Ugandan compound is far from perfect for refugees. Their number has doubled in the past five years to more than half a million, most recently from separate conflicts in Burundi and South Sudan.
KILUME ZIZI (Refugee from Democratic Republic of Congo): Uganda is good because it does give us security here in the camp. Most of the time you don’t hear guns like that.
DE SAM LAZARO: Kilume Zizi is grateful to have escaped the violence in his native Congo, where he had a small business in household goods. He hasn’t been able to reestablish here and barely scrapes by on minimal food rations for his wife and five children.
These are beans? Yes, we get two cups per person per month…
DE SAM LAZARO: Many refugees, like Ababesh Gebraslassie, remain haunted by the ordeal that brought them here.
ABEBESH GEBRESLASSIE (Refugee from Eritrea): My husband was killed, my son was killed, and also my daughter.
DE SAM LAZARO: A son and daughter died in their escape from Eritrea, a country rated among the world’s most repressive by human rights groups. Her son-in-law made it to Libya, but died in the Mediterranean. She survived the journey of thousands of miles on foot and on trucks with her then six-year-old twin son and daughter. But she made a wrenching decision to leave two older teenaged children behind.
GEBRASLASSIE: I feared if we all died, like my son who was shot, I left them so that our family can survive, can be represented.
DE SAM LAZARO: They are still there now?
GEBRASLASSIE: I don’t know. I don’t know.
DE SAM LAZARO: Along the way she also took custody of her orphaned granddaughter, Sara, who’s now four.
GEBRASLASSIE: I don’t care if I die here, but I want a better future for my children, and that’s not possible without a good education.
DE SAM LAZARO: That’s not likely in the crowded school her children attend, crowded with 120 students in each classroom, and perhaps because of that, teachers who aren’t very sympathetic. There are severe consequences for being late, for instance.
They beat you?
Who does that?
The teachers. They make you clean the toilet and pick up the rubbish.
They don’t understand, she said, that I’m late because I’ve gone to fetch water and helped my mother with the chores.
DE SAM LAZARO: In the end, Ugandan and international officials say it boils down to resources or a lack of them. Uganda may be hospitable, but it has a gross domestic product of just $600 a year per person. Nakhivale’s school is funded by the UN’s refugee agency. It gives Uganda some $200 million annually in refugee aid, which spokesman Charles Yaxley admits is a fraction of what’s needed.
But the situation is not likely to improve amid demands on donor governments for refugees out of Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, and elsewhere.
CHARLES YAXLEY (External Relations Officer for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Uganda): Around the world, humanitarian financing is arguably at breaking point. Currently, humanitarian appeals for South Sudanese and Burundian refugees in Uganda, both of those appeals are severely underfunded. We’ve received less than a quarter of the money we need for 2016, and that leaves real gaps in our humanitarian response. It means we’re not able to provide the education support for children such as better schools, more schools, more teachers. It also means we’re severely restricted in the outreach we can provide in business development.
DE SAM LAZARO: That does not bode well for the future of Abebesh Gebraslassie’s twins, who shared their dreams in halting, shy English:
When I grow up I want to be a doctor and help my mother.
DE SAM LAZARO: How about you, David? What would you like to do?
DAVID: I wish to be a pilot.
DE SAM LAZARO: A pilot? Where would you like to go?
DAVID: Everyplace. America and everywhere…
DE SAM LAZARO: Possible…but like their chance of a good education here, with lottery-like odds. America admitted 70,000 refugees last year. The UN says there are 65 million displaced people in the world today.
For Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, this is Fred de Sam Lazaro in Nakhivale, Uganda.