By Elvis Lubanga
For the past four years, South Sudanese have been the largest group (about 226,877) of asylum seekers in Bidibidi Refugee Settlement, in northwest Uganda due to the prolonged insecurity and conflict in South Sudan. As long as there is lack of livelihood and low levels of safety in the country, many South Sudanese will continue to seek stability and survival in a different place.
Over the years, Uganda has made it increasingly easy for South Sudanese children to receive residency, access education, and move freely with limited restrictions, through the office of the Prime Minister (OPM) and other humanitarian organizations led by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
During the journey to Uganda, many children travel alone, having lost their parents and caretakers during conflict in their home country. Arriving in Bidibidi, these children are a particularly vulnerable group of refugees. Studies have shown that the stress and challenges associated with traveling and resettling without a parent or trusted adult lead to higher rates of depression and difficulties to survive.
In Uganda, the growth of South Sudanese unaccompanied minors is at its peak, with the number of separated children and unaccompanied minors registered since July 2016 at more than 5,000. An unaccompanied minor is a child without the presence of a legal caretaker.
According to Duniya Aslam Khan the spokesperson of UNHCR, on average Uganda registers more than 100 unaccompanied minors and separated children daily from South Sudan.
Damian Taban, the chairperson of the Refugee Welfare Council, village 10 , zone 3 said when people arrive from South Sudan, UNHCR in partnership with other organizations identify and register all children without guardians. The authorities also assign willing caretakers for various child-headed families who are often refugees themselves.
“[We] would ask those willing and are able to stay with these different children. Those [who] are willing; World Vision provides some basic needs.”
He added that the organizations also build child friendly spaces. When the numbers of unaccompanied children increased, the organizations created ‘Early Childhood Development’ which provides shelter and education for unaccompanied children.
A working solution: foster parents for child-headed families
A group of international organizations have established a program that encourages child-headed families to maintain ties with parents and peers in their community, especially when life in the new country is not easy to maneuver.
Anthony Tumuhimbise, a Senior Protection Assistant at UNHCR , said the UNHCR along with partners such as World Vision, Save the Children and the Danish Refugee Council sends out case workers known as mentors to monitor child-headed households and encourage them to join great families.
He noted that many of these children arrive with deep-rooted pain and sadness that can only be soothed by one who has been through the same. This is why they recommend the foster families and mentors to be from the same locality such that the child does not feel out of place.
“Foster parents are refugees themselves, who are however supported to look after unaccompanied children,” Tumuhimbise said. “The advantage of such is that these are people that have grown up with them; these are people from the same village, from the same background. They know how they can bring up these children.”
“Getting them foster families is something sustainable because leaving them alone means that they won’t be able to look after themselves,” he added.
Support for these families include giving clothes, shelter, water, education, medication, guidance and counseling, he said.
Tumuhimbise expressed gratitude to the partners that are helping children like Raphael to get substitute care arrangements and trace their relatives.
They plan to help unaccompanied minors better access mental health care since these children are particularly vulnerable and more likely than other refugee groups to experience this depression. This is encouraged by advising the children to keep open lines of communication with friends and family they stay with.
“It is important to note that these relationships often act as a healthy guard against developing symptoms of depression,” Tumuhimbise said.
Anthony narrating how they are helping the un accompanied and separated children in Bidibidi settlement.
Richard Ochaya, a water engineer and top official with UNHCR Uganda, said that since resuming school has proven to be key in improving psychological and social levels, providing these minors immediate access to meaningful education opportunities, with safeguards against bullying, has been key in protecting and improving an unaccompanied minor’s well-being.
“This can only be achieved in an organized setting and in this case a foster family,” he said.
Kiden Betty, one of the foster mothers narrating her experience with the children.
17-year-old Ismail Raffeal along with his younger sister lost their family during an attack in South Sudan. The two fled to Uganda on foot.
“By the time when we left South Sudan, my mother had gone to the market and left us alone at home,” Raffeal said.
He added that when the war began, amidst heavy downpours, they ran on empty stomachs and slept under trees at night. They finally arrived at a place called Bolgoda at the border of the two countries. This is where refuges are processed before bringing them to the settlement.
“Since that time, I have not seen my relatives. When it reached time for registering, it is where I met this ‘relative’ I am now staying with,” Raffeal said.
From Bolgoda, they proceeded to Bidibidi settlement where he met a white woman who asked for his name and where he was from.
“I told her the same story, that we were made to leave our home without will. After that she gave me a card and wrote on the card that I was an ‘U.A.M”: Unaccompanied minor.”
He said from the day they were brought to Zone 2 of the settlement, they have received some basic needs but not all have been delivered as needed.
“Really life is hard; some times when am sleeping am just thinking about my parents. That even though I come to school, what teacher is saying I am not understanding because my mind is not there,” Raffeal said.
Amidst his daily struggles, Raffeal said that the woman he stays with has a husband and helped him to construct his house. Still, he misses his mother.
Within his family, the only people who currently attend school are himself and his sister. One of his brothers is a soldier and the second-born a player in the South Sudan soccer team. The third-born refused school but as for now he knows not of their whereabouts. Raffeal believes that to be a better person in the future, one must be educated.
He added that for him to see his sister happy and comfortable, some times when she does not have anything, he tells her to be strong because in future they can be better if they put education first.
Raffael and his siblings are among the hundreds of refugee children arriving in Uganda every day with neither father nor mother but who still have hope and motivation for a better life.
Raffeal Ismail,17 primary seven at Ambia Primary school, share his experience as an un accompanied miner