Robert Owot (left) and Chuck Radis (right) in Uganda 2018
7 min read
Robert Owot is a refugee. I am holding onto his waist as he drives his motorcycle down a rutted, ochre mud road towards the Kiryandongo Refugee Settlement in northern Uganda. A thunderstorm gathers behind us; we want to make it to his home inside the settlement before the rains cascade down.
We round a corner and there is the entrance to the settlement. A simple wooden gate blocks the road. Although I can see government barracks off to my right, the entry is deserted. Groups of refugees are walking beside us in and out of the camp. Robert drives his motorcycle around the gate. I look back. There is no fence to keep the refugees inside.
Robert is one of 70,000 refugees inside the Kiryandongo settlement, the result of a remarkable partnership between the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Ugandan government. In 1990 Uganda set aside the largely uninhabited land around Kiryandongo for refugee resettlement. The horrific reign of Idi Amin was over and the country looked forward to a time of healing and peace. Two years after the settlement opened, Robert fled the Sudan civil war and found safety in Kiryandongo. For fourteen years, between 1992 and 2006, Robert lived and taught school in the settlement, married, had his first child, and realized he had a second calling: he had a gift for community organization. He remembers when Kiryandongo was heavily forested and the nearest community outside the settlement, Bweyale, was barely more than a tiny collection of huts and stalls along the newly paved road.
The settlement — -Uganda has insisted that the UN use the term settlement rather than camp because for some refugees it is a permanent home — -has taken in refugees from the Congo, Kenya, and Burundi, but the majority have recently fled from South Sudan. It is also home to thousands of internally displaced Ugandans from natural disasters. A group of former coffee growers from the northwest corner of Uganda has lived here for ten years after the government told them they couldn’t return to their village after a major flood swept away most of a mountainside. They are now beekeepers.
As few as 3,000 refugees and as many as 70,000 refugees have sought refuge in Kiryandongo. The numbers fluctuate, but when war breaks out, Kiryandongo is there for those who flee for their lives from neighboring countries.
When a peace agreement was signed between the warring factions in Sudan in 2005, after 14 years as a refugee in Kiryandongo, Robert Owot moved back to Sudan. His father and mother, also teachers, taught geography and mathematics in the city of Juba. When South Sudan officially became a nation in 2011, he was given a job in The Ministry of Education in the Planning/Budget Office. One brother worked for a non-governmental organization, another brother won a seat in parliament.
I met Robert in 2012 in South Sudan. At forty-three, his close-cropped hair speckled with gray, he had the bearing, eloquence, and confidence of a South Sudanese Nelson Mandela. My family non-profit (The Maine-African Partnership for Social Justice, mapsj.org) came to his home village of Nyolo for a program developed by the Massachusetts General Hospital to teach traditional birth attendants techniques to reduce maternal and infant mortality. Robert organized the program on the ground and become our MAPSJ coordinator in South Sudan. There was optimism that the fledgling country was on the right track.
The next year, when I returned with a group of medical students to train 50 villagers in basic First-Aid through a program developed by Dr. Frank Hubbell of SOLO schools in New Hampshire, Robert drew equal numbers of men and women from the 4 surrounding villages to receive the training. This was no easy task. The villages were of different tribes, each with their own chief, and in the not so recent past, they had quarreled over land. He organized the chiefs into a loose community organization. He began public health campaigns to improve vaccination rates. He ensured that each village received First-Aid supplies. He looked into programs to improve water quality. A school was built with funding from MAPSJ and another Maine non-profit, Aserela.
Near the end of our program in 2013, South Sudan’s President, Salva Kiir, fired his Vice President, Riek Machar. Our group was briefly detained by the South Sudanese Liberation Army. The country descended into a brutal civil war. By 2016, the war had spread southward to Robert Owot’s village. Homes and fields were burned, many of Robert’s friends and neighbors were killed. The survivors fled south, across the Uganda border, to the UNHCR Kiryandongo Settlement. They were not alone. Several million South Sudanese out of a total estimated population of 11 million fled the country or were internally displaced.
I have been to Kiryandongo 3 times since Robert returned with his family as refugees in 2016. In all, he tells me, he has spent 16 years — -nearly a third of his life — — inside the settlement. Sometimes there is a guard at the entrance, often there is not. Remarkably, refugees are still free to come and go. There is no fence. A curfew is enforced. There is armed security within the settlement, but for the most part, it is nearly invisible. The settlement is huge. I have run inside the settlement for 5 miles without reaching the outskirts. The rolling landscape, formerly forest, is now broken up by thousands of garden plots and tin-roofed or thatched huts. Remarkably, Uganda provides each refugee/family an acre of land to farm. Refugees are free to find work in the neighboring town, Bweyale, several miles away. Real Medicine, a San Francisco non-profit, operates several medical clinics within the settlement.
Programs by the big NGO’s are everywhere. Billboards tell refugees to report sexual violence and to stay in school. UNICEF, Save the Children, Windle Trust International, and many others are doing good work in the settlement. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) works closely with Uganda’s Office of the Prime Minister to strengthen education and programs promoting peaceful co-existence. Vocational training programs are in place. Everywhere within the settlement, people are selling their produce, starting a small business, looking forward rather than to the past.
That’s not to say that the system is running flawlessly. In a city-sized refugee settlement, there will always be unmet needs. But Kiryandongo is not broken. Instead, I would compare Kiryandongo to a functioning watch in need of constant adjustment.
On my most recent trip to Uganda in the fall of 2018, Robert met me on his Boda Boda in the town of Bweyale and we set off for the settlement. Strapped on the back of several other Boda Boda were suitcases filled with school supplies from the Peaks Island grammar school in the United States where I live. We traveled first to Robert’s brick home he built where he lives with his wife, Jackline, and their 3 children. With the assistance of the Maine General Federation of Women’s Clubs, she has formed a women’s group called Cam Kwoki , meaning, much sweat. The women sell their products: pocketbooks, bedsheets, table mats, candles, and body gels at the local market. Robert pointed proudly to healthy rows of maize, cassava, sweet potato, and tomato plants beside his home. Between the rows, there were beans and yams. These were the crops he planted and tended.
We journeyed deeper into the settlement to a store-front which serves as the headquarters for MAPSJ and Robert’s own new non-profit: The Partnership for Community Development. On the roof were 3 solar panels powering several computers, a copier, and a cell-phone charging station. Two men, Peter, and Benson (both refugees) were inside, teaching other refugees the basics of computer learning. Margaret Allo, another refugee, held a meeting of the public health team. On a table inside, Robert opened the suitcases and smiled broadly. The leadership team gathered.
Then he did a remarkable thing. He divided the supplies. One portion was to go to the Bidong School in the settlement where 350 refugee children from the Nyolo Hope School in South Sudan continue their education. He instructed his leadership team that children orphaned in the war, as well as internally displaced Ugandan children, receive school supplies as well. He placed the remaining supplies in a large box and said, “These are school supplies for the St. Benedict School outside the refugee settlement in Bweyale. St. Benedict is a poor school. They have almost nothing. The best way for us to keep good relations with our host community outside Kiryandongo is to pay back their generosity by sharing our good fortune.”
When it is safe to return, Robert Owot wants to establish his non-profit in South Sudan. His wife, Jackline, will bring her business acumen. Peter, Benson, and Margaret will bring public health and computer skills. The lessons they’ve learned during their years in Kiryandongo will go towards promoting peaceful co-existence, education, and self-reliance in South Sudan. And isn’t that, ideally, what the work of the United Nations is all about? If someday Kiryandongo is to close, if someday there is simply no need for a refugee settlement like Kiryandongo, it began here. Robert Owot and the United Nations are at the epicenter of this transformation.
For more information about the work of the Maine-African Partnership for Social Justice, see www.mapsj.org