The influx of South Sudanese refugees to Uganda has put a strain on the country’s resources with some areas lacking basic needs such as water and secondary school education. This month, Dubai Cares visited the country to oversee the building of three classrooms at a refugee settlement in Adjumani.
Even before the celebration over new classrooms built by Dubai Cares ended, the stressed conditions of life inside the Ayilo II refugee settlement in Adjumani, Uganda quickly began to emerge.
“You can see, in our school here, there is no proper water source,” said Cici Martin Wahi, a 38-year-old South Sudanese teacher at Liberty Primary School, where the three new classrooms are being constructed in Northern Uganda. “There is no water. This is the major problem that we are facing.”
Mr Wahi is among the two million refugees who have fled South Sudan since 2013 to escape the brutal armed conflict that erupted between the country’s two largest ethnic groups. About half of these South Sudanese refugees — 1.04m — have sought safety in neighbouring Uganda, mostly settling in the northern districts of Yumbe and Adjumani, in what international aid agencies are calling Africa’s biggest human exodus since the Rwandan genocide and the fastest growing refugee crisis in the world.
In just over a year, the Bidi Bidi compound in Yumbe has grown to almost 285,000 refugees, becoming the largest refugee settlement in the world, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The Adjumani district, which supports 19 settlements with roughly 234,000 refugees, is not far behind.
“Uganda has a very generous refugee policy,” said Greg Lavender, head of programmes for Plan International Uganda. “It is actually known throughout the world for its progressive and welcoming refugee policy.”
Refugee families who cross into Uganda are given a small plot of arable land by the government, while international aid agencies provide basic materials to help the new arrivals set up shelter to live and farm on the property.
The government’s open-door policy also grants refugees freedom of movement, the right to work, establish businesses and access public services such as education and health care, according to the UNHCR.
“For us, we treat the refugees from South Sudan and other parts of Africa as our own brothers and sisters,” said Oyaa Nahori Auwa, resident district commissioner for the Adjumani district.
But as the number of refugees to Uganda surged following intensified fighting in South Sudan in 2016 — an average of about 1,800 South Sudanese refugees, mostly women and children, crossed the border daily within the past year — the local economy has come under increased pressure, Mr Auwa acknowledged.
“The influx of refugees here causes some stress on the resources of the district here,” said Mr Auwa.
Dubai Cares has responded to the crisis by funding what it calls emergency education intervention in Northern Uganda. It donated US$1,135,855 (Dh4,172,312) toward building three new brick classrooms in six primary schools — three in Adjumani and three in Yumbe — for a total of 18 new classrooms that can accommodate about 15,000 children. Construction of the classrooms began in July and is expected to be completed in February.
The 15-month project, which is being carried out in partnership with Plan International Uganda, also ensures each of the six schools receive new toilets, changing rooms and a washing facility for girls; chairs and tables for students and teachers; scholastic materials such as books, pens and maths sets for pupils and teaching materials for the teachers; and training for the teachers, most of whom are South Sudanese.
“If governments prioritise education in any crisis, then the problem will get solved easily,” said Dubai Cares chief executive Tariq Al Gurg. “What will happen to those children if they don’t get education? They will become young people who are uneducated, frustrated, a time bomb. They become a bait to terrorist groups.”
Last month, Mr Al Gurg was joined by his staff and invited members of the UAE media as he visited Liberty Primary School to assess and monitor the project being implemented by Plan International Uganda in the Ayilo II refugee settlement in Adjumani.
The journey from Uganda’s capital, Kampala, to Adjumani covers a distance of about 445 kilometres. In theory, the route should take no more than about six hours or so to complete. But because much of the driving is done on narrow, bumpy dirt roads often travelled on foot or bike by the locals, the trip took nearly twice as long over a period of two days.
When the Dubai Cares motorcade finally arrived at Liberty Primary School early in the afternoon, they were greeted by hundreds of singing refugees, many of whom were dressed in bright, bubble-gum pink T-shirts that were handed to them just an hour earlier by Plan International Uganda in preparation for the group’s arrival. The adult refugees formed two lines to welcome the foreign visitors with energetic chants, drumming and dancing. Bricklayers could be seen working on the three new classrooms nearby.
Currently, Liberty Primary School consists of a one-room office, two aged brick classrooms, and one outdoor classroom that the refugees themselves built with a plastic roof and wooden poles. The school employs 11 teachers — nine of whom are South Sudanese refugees — to teach more than 700 pupils from grades 1 to 7, although some of the pupils are up to 15 years old. The new classrooms will allow the school to enrol 300 more primary pupils when the new academic year begins in February.
“The schools that Dubai Cares is supporting are purely schools that were established to respond to the massive education needs of the children, mostly South Sudanese refugee children, but also the host community children,” said Jessica Ilomu, Plan International Uganda’s national programme manager for education. “This project came at the right time when that need was at its highest.”
But, as Ms Ilomu and many other officials, parents and teachers said, there are new, more urgent challenges that have surfaced as the number of refugees has surged since last year. Once pupils graduate from primary school, for example, there is a very limited number of secondary schools for the refugees to continue their education.
“A lot of primary schools have been established. The challenge is the secondary level,” Joseline Draleru, community services officer for the Adjumani district told the Dubai Cares delegation. “We are always grooming these children through primary level of education, but by the time they reach the secondary level of education, they are left unattended.”
The agencies are also struggling to meet the refugees’ basic need for food and water.
The closest bore hole to the school is nearly two kilometres away. Women and children are usually the ones to make the daily trek to collect drinking and bathing water in the plastic jerry cans that they balance over their heads when full. Throughout the many hours the Dubai Cares convoy spent driving on the rural roads in Northern Uganda, a constant sight was the crowds gathered at pumps as people waited their turn to collect water.
The school has a large water tank for harvesting water, but it stood empty as a dry spell prevailed over the parched land in the settlement.
“It’s not just a problem, water is a crisis in this area,” said Ms Ilomu.
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Compounding the water crisis is hunger, said Ms Ilomu.
“Children go without food, completely,” said Ms Ilomu. “They come here at 7am, they leave here at 4 or 5pm, but they eat nothing. So you realise many of the children here come to school, they stay throughout the day without a meal because the parents, whatever they can contribute comes from the rations that they are given by UNHCR.”
The UNHCR provides the refugees with a monthly ration of maize, corn-soy blend, vegetable oil, pulses and salt. But its budget for the South Sudan emergency was facing a funding shortfall of 68 per cent. As of October, it had only received US$282 million of the US$883 million the agency said it needs to support the refugees, according to a UNHCR regional update report.
World Food Programme deputy country director Cheryl Harrison said the relief food needs of refugees have tripled over the last 24 months.
“We are barely managing to meet the unprecedented demands,” said Ms Harrison. “Because of funding shortages, around 200,000 people who have been in the country since before mid-2015 are receiving half rations. This ration cut has been in effect since August 2016, affecting some refugees in Adjumani.” Extremely vulnerable households and malnourished individuals are excluded from the cuts, she said.
“While WFP is very grateful to donors, funding has not kept pace with the rapidly growing numbers of refugees,” said Ms Harrison. “WFP urgently needs US$71 million for the next six months to meet refugees’ basic food needs.”
Mr Al Gurg acknowledged the challenges, saying the visit offered him a new perspective about the real, on-the-ground difficulties that the refugee children and their families are facing daily.
“That’s why I’m here — to engage with the parents, to engage with the teachers and see how the children are, to see what are the communal issues here,” said Mr Al Gurg. “They spoke about water. Water is creating a problem. And, us understanding this and having a water source in the school, not only it will solve community issues, but it will also abandon absenteeism and it will also give the children and the school community the water source to drink. There was a request and we can look into enhancing the programme a bit to have at least water wells in every single school. We can have a discussion with Plan on it.”
The current Dubai Cares project being carried out by Plan International Uganda doesn’t include plans for funding a secondary school, but Mr Al Gurg said it may be something the organisation may consider at the conclusion of the 15-month plan.
“We were not (previously) told that secondary school is an issue, so coming here, listening to the parents, it tells you that there is an issue,” he said. “We’re not going to enhance this programme yet, we’re going to wait for 15 months, we’re going to assess the situation, we’re going to have an external evaluation, and we’re going to see the response of the international community in terms of scaling up the existing programme that we have and once that is there, we will add the secondary school component.”
Mark Kenyie, a 28-year-old father of two, moved to the settlement last year to reunite with his wife and two children who arrived ahead of him. He hoped the secondary school would be built in the settlement in time for his 13-year-old daughter to enrol. She is currently in Grade 4. Mr Kenyie acknowledged their new life as refugees is fraught with daily challenges, but he is still “happy” there.
“I’m happy because I left the place of fighting,” said Mr Kenyie. “When we were in South Sudan, at any time, we are thinking we are going to die. But now, if you are here, at least you know that you are safe, you are alive.”