The life of a refugee can be fraught with danger and despair. Displaced families often have health issues, financial challenges and uncertainty about what tomorrow will bring. In many instances, families are torn apart. The Congregation’s Corporate Stand on Migration, affirmed in October 2019 (inSpirit Annual Giving Report, March 2020), is a declaration that urges the Sisters of the Holy Cross to address the needs of migrants as well as the causes of migration, and to intentionally partner with secular and religious leaders, groups and organizations.
Sister Semerita Mbambu, CSC, is responding to the stand and the call to live in solidarity with refugee and migrant brothers and sisters in Uganda. At the request of the nation’s government, Sister Semerita and other Holy Cross sisters in the Fort Portal community conducted a needs assessment in two of the country’s 12 refugee camps. Among the 12 settlements, Uganda has a total of about 1.2 million refugees.
Through the assessment, the sisters discovered that many pastoral, spiritual and physical needs existed. Kyaka II, in the Kyegegwa district, is a receiving camp, with a daily influx of 600 to 800 refugees. By March 2020, Kyaka II’s population was nearly 124,000. Rwamwanja camp, in the Kamwenge district, no longer receives refugees. Its permanent settlers number around 72,500. Most of the refugees have come from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, Burundi and Rwanda.
Assessment reveals desperate needs
To conduct the needs assessment, the sisters identified target areas in each camp to address a variety of issues related to livelihoods, gender, human rights, education, health, co-existence, and spiritual and pastoral care.
In Kyaka II, the sisters visited four of the nine zones, addressing specific groups, such as people with special needs, adult men and women, youth and unaccompanied children. In Rwamwanja, the sisters focused on three of the six zones with target groups including youth, married men and women, and people with special needs. At both camps, the sisters met with leaders among the refugees and the host communities where the camps are located. They also visited with other partner organizations that are already serving the refugees.
Among many findings, the assessment revealed that families headed by children and people with special needs were desperate for support. The sisters also learned that the refugees would benefit from training in a trade, as well as assistance with accessing health services and education.
“We want to stand in solidarity with the refugees as a sign of presence and love in fostering justice [for them] and enabling them to realize their potential in the host country,” says Sister Semerita.
Donors respond to help refugees
Based on the great needs revealed through the assessment, Sister Semerita was awarded Ministry With the Poor funds to implement a plan that engages the refugees and the host communities. The plan is a multipronged, collaborative approach to improving the health and well-being of refugees in the camps and supporting the engagement of the host communities, focusing on the areas of health, food and nutrition, and skills training.
“Health is a very crucial thing for the refugees,” Sister Semerita notes, “especially those in Kyaka II, since it is a receiving settlement. We want to purchase 200 mattresses to support the bedding capacity of the health facility there.”
The sisters will conduct a series of meetings for the refugees and the host communities to explain their plan and gather support and participation.
The plan calls for providing food and nutrition information to 40 child-headed families, whose members range in age from 3 to 17. These families have unique challenges, such as the absence of parents and parenting, hunger, immigration and registration issues, and the
lack of spiritual and psycho-social support. Unfortunately, some child-headed families are exploited by other refugee families.
Child-headed families also need a way to earn income. The Fort Portal sisters plan to train 100 children in each camp in soap and craft making. With assistance from the Ministry With the Poor Fund, the training will take place over the course of a year and give these young families hope where before they had none.
To help families in the host communities as well as the settlements, the sisters want to initiate a poultry project to provide income as well as an ongoing food source. The plan is to start with 30 families in each host community and each camp, for a total of 120 families benefiting from the project.
“It is interesting that the host communities and refugees have a firm relationship on how they conduct their community affairs,” Sister Semerita explains. “We realized that the host communities help by allowing refugees to work for them and pay them and/or give them food. We also found that both the refugees and host communities belong to some of the same groups, where they do a number of development activities.”
It is against this background that the Fort Portal sisters seek to support these groups with the poultry project.
Of course, with the global COVID-19 pandemic, the sisters are finding even more needs. The refugees can no longer visit the neighborhoods in the host communities where they found food and work. They relied upon these connections for often what was their only meal of the day.
“I call upon the well-wishers to support the migrants who are now suffering, not having anything to eat,” says Sister Semerita. “It is very sad, especially with the breastfeeding mothers and pregnant women spending the whole day without food.”
As funds allow, the sisters will reach out to supply food to these vulnerable people, while keeping in line with the health measures the government has issued.
“Our goals are many,” Sister Semerita notes. “We want to create awareness about the human rights and other rights of the refugees. We hope to empower them economically through learning skills to manage their basic needs. We also will strive to complement the existing pastoral and spiritual interventions among the refugees. With God’s help and guidance, we will see this done.”