By Paul Night
West Nile region – Caritas Uganda a Church based aid organization is continuing with its support to the socio-economic needs of 42,000 refugees currently residing at Bidi Bidi Refugee Settlement by empowering them to be self-reliant and have dignified lives.
Following the collapse of the peace process on 9th July, 2016 when government and opposition forces clashed in the capital Juba. The opposition forces fled towards the Congolese border and as the government pursued them, the ever peaceful Yei River State got drawn into the war. In less than 2 months 240,000 more South Sudanese fled their country, prompting the Ugandan government to open Bidi Bidi refugee settlement.
In 2016 Bidi Bidi in Yumbe district,Uganda was a forest, now it is home to 169,000 people and one of the largest refugee camps in the world.
As the 2018 second rainy season drew to an end, Caritas Uganda’s emergency team launched a campaign for assistance and within weeks several International Caritas organizations and the Swiss Government mobilized enough funds to support 20,000 refugees. In the meantime, the Ugandan Government had requested Caritas to cater for the needs of all 42,000 refugees of Bidi Bidi’s “Zone 2”, so Caritas Uganda’s plea for assistance will continue until the needs of all those people have to be meet.
In October, 2017, the Caritas refugee response was officially launched with a large seeds and tools distribution. Within days, volunteers helped to distribute 10,000 hand tools and 10 metric tons of vegetable seeds in order to allow the refugees to grow pulses and vegetables so they can improve their diet. On the 26th of October, last year the distribution was attended by the Papal Nuncio to Uganda, Archbishop Michael Blume, and the Bishop of Arua Diocese, Rt. Rev Sabino Odoki, in order to give the refugees a message of hope.
This distribution was the first activity in a 12-month program that will bring back dignity and self-reliance for the refugees by providing them with sanitary pads, mosquito nets, crop seeds and everyday agricultural support. In order to allow the refugees to make maximum use of their time in exile, the program will also take 420 refugee youths for vocational and agro-economic trainings in regional technical institutes. As their exile is expected to be temporarily, Caritas is not only looking at their current situation in Uganda, but we also want to make sure that they are fully ready for resettlement once the situation in their home country stabilizes.
The lands on which the refugees have settled, belongs to the Ugandan host communities and in order to thank them for their generosity, Caritas Uganda will also support 4,000 vulnerable Ugandans who are living around the camps. They will get similar support as the refugees and will embark on a massive tree planting campaign in order to compensate for the deforestation the camp has caused
Learning Challenges faced by host population and refugees at BidiBidi
At first light, teacher Patrick Abale leaves his tent, pitched among others on the edge of Yangani Primary School in the Bidibidi settlement in northern Uganda.
He strides towards the administration block, drops off his books in the office he shares with the school principal and turns to look at the first few pupils arriving.
“When I joined here there were more than 6,000 pupils in this school,” he says, as the sound of stamping and shuffling feet gradually fills the chill morning air.
The trickle of arrivals turns into a torrent. By now pupils are pouring in from all directions.
“When it first opened several months ago, there was a rush to enrol, and the school was forced to turn some children away because of the lack of space. Today, there are about 5,000 which, Patrick notes, is “a very big number”.
Patrick, a Ugandan, is a deputy principal in charge of academic studies and administration at Yangani. “It is a Ugandan state school and, although the children are mostly refugees, there are some local pupils here, too”
Despite the pupil numbers, the school has a staff of only 38. In 10 years of teaching, Patrick has worked in some difficult environments but Yangani is on a different scale.
Spread over roughly two acres, the school is a patchwork of tattered plastic tents, many with holes, flapping in the wind. A sloping valley separates the administration area and upper primary classes on one side from the lower primary classes on the other. Inside the classrooms the temperature soon rises and children squirm in discomfort.
“Things are really tough here because there just isn’t enough space for all the students,” Patrick says, gesturing into one of the classrooms.
A glance inside reveals a crowded scene: children occupy every available space, with as many as five sharing a desk. Some sit on the floor, others stand at the back and in the aisles, clutching their books to their chests. “Sometimes, because of the congestion, they stand next to the teacher at the front of the class,” Patrick says.
Yangani school opened in February this year to cater to the rapidly growing numbers of South Sudanese refugees. Uganda has been among the most generous countries in its response to the influx, welcoming refugees, giving them plot of land and making public services, including education, available.
Now host to nearly 1 million people who have fled South Sudan, 60 per cent of them are children, Uganda is struggling to keep up.
According to the education ministry, the standard teacher-to-student ratio should be one to 45. There should be three children to a desk, and 14 to every lavatory.
Yangani breaches these rules by a wide margin. As an administrator, Patrick tries to ensure that learning materials are shared equally across the classes. “We now have 279 textbooks for all students, so you can imagine how tough it is to share,” he says. That is one textbook to every 18 children.
UNHCR, the Ugandan education ministry and partner organizations are looking for ways to increase capacity, setting up more schools and working with national and local officials to identify existing ones that can expand.
In this way, they hope to bring more refugee children into the national education system and raise standards for refugees and local communities. Uganda cannot do this on its own. “The government is already doing its level best, so we are calling for more donor support to fill the gaps,” says Julius Okello, a UNHCR field officer in Bidi Bidi.
I am introduced to 17-year-old Bashir, who fled his home in South Sudan last November. Now he lives in Bidi Bidi as an unaccompanied minor. His parents stayed behind but he has no idea what has happened to them.
There were no other schools nearby so he had to wait for months before Yangani opened and he could enrol. Bashir is in his last year of primary school and he says he is doing his best to study diligently, but admits it can be hard. “We don’t have enough books,” he says. “If you get a little money, you can buy some, but most students can’t afford them. Some of us who don’t have parents here struggle.”
The brimful classrooms are evidence that there is plenty of demand for education. Most refugees are settled in areas a long way from existing state-run schools. Setting up new ones not only gets refugee children into the national education system, but also raises capacity and standards for local communities. “Schools like Yangani are filling a crucial gap,” Okello says.
However, it is difficult for children to learn under such constrained circumstances. “There are no boundaries to separate the classes. Two different classes take place next to each other, so whatever is being taught in one class is heard in the next one.”
Patrick surveys the ranks of children before heading off to teach another class. “Imagine only thirty-eight teachers for all these students,” he says. “You can get overwhelmed.”