REFUGEE: A person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution or natural disaster.
This definition has been my understanding of a refugee for years and the images we see on US television paint a grim reality that thousands endure each year as they are impacted by the trauma forcing them from their homes.
In February, I was able to go and visit Mocha Club’s Country Director and staff who are working in northern Uganda with refugees fleeing the war in South Sudan. As we began our drive into the camps, my heart was ready for what my head was sure I was about to encounter.
Our journey led us to Adjumani, Uganda where I first met Anthony, an older man with a kind smile who looked to be in his late sixties. He was standing in front of the tarped structure he now calls home. Last September, when the fighting got close to his village in South Sudan, he sent his mother, his wife, and his five young children to safety in Uganda. He stayed behind, separated from his loved ones, salvaging what he could of their farm until army rebels took over three months later, forcing him to flee.
As Anthony shared his story, I could see the fear and heartbreak he had lived through on his face. He was not sure what he would find as he crossed the Nile and made his way to the processing tent at Adjumani where all new refugees must go to get registered and ask about their relatives. Did his mother survive the trek three months ago? Were all of his children still alive? Would his wife be there? It’s a reality I truly can’t fathom.
Anthony’s story lined up with what I have seen on TV or witnessed in other camps before. I had expected Adjumani to be unfathomable: hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese refugees; makeshift communities dotted with tarped roofs; tons of stories just like Anthony’s.
I’ve been in many places like this before – places where poverty, war and trauma are overwhelming and it looks like – it feels like – all hope is lost. In these camps, there is a tension that exists and becomes normal. Refugee vs. Peacekeeper. Refugee vs. Refugee. Refugee vs. Local. This tension is often even tangibly represented by a huge fence around the camp – not to keep refugees safe, but to keep them in. In this reality, a refugee is fighting to survive – they never even dream about thriving.
Adjumani is different.
As Tito, our South Sudan Country Director, showed me around, I began to see things I had not expected. I saw smiles, I saw community, I saw – HOPE. Tito pointed out opportunity, vision, dreams, and plans for a future here. He was breathing hope to life.
I struggled to reconcile what I had expected with what was right in front of me, then it hit me… these people’s lives had been entirely wrecked, forever altered. But they were finally at a place where they could stop running.
Hundreds of thousands of people like Anthony had fought to make it here. But when they arrived, they found kindness and were offered land next to their Ugandan neighbors. I was able to ask several Ugandans, “Why are you so willing to share your land, your schools, your economy with so many South Sudanese refugees?” Their response? “Because ten years ago, they did that for us.”
For decades, this region has lived with civil war, with night commutes and child soldiers. Where we see a line separating South Sudan and Uganda, they don’t see anything. They lived here long before that line was drawn; they’ve been neighbors for centuries; they’ve hosted each other in times of crisis. And they continue to do so — because when all else fails, community remains.
I now had a new understanding and appreciation for refugees. While what I saw was different than my expectations, it did not diminish the very real needs, which are still present. Remember those tarp roofs? Tito shared with us that they only last three months and an immediate need in the refugee community is to find a solution for them. Thanks to you and the Mocha Club community we have been able to provide zinc roofs for many of the refugee families.
Oh, and Anthony? His family is one that will benefit from the zinc roofs – the roofs that are a result of your mochas. That’s me, Anthony, and his wife Betty in front of their current home, tarp and all. Soon that tarp will be replaced by the zinc sheets he has received. And for the next ten years, those zinc sheets – your mochas – will be the solid roof over his family in this community that has become their home.
I asked Tito what was next – for the refugees and for how Mocha Club could support them beyond a solid roof under which their families could lay their heads. He said he dreams of a place where they can rest their hearts as well. So he is beginning to teach these refugees how to walk through their stories of trauma and loss and begin to heal.
Emily Blackledge, Mocha Club President