By Violet Ikong 

When Lazard Kisimba, now 30 years old, fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo for Uganda in 2016, his goal was to escape deadly conflict in his homeland and live in safety. But when he arrived in Kampala, Uganda’s capital city, things got off to a difficult start. He did not speak the languages of Kampala – English, Luganda, or Swahili – so he could not ask for help locating other Congolese refugees. Alone and unsure how to get help, he slept on the streets for many weeks, plagued by hunger, cold, and mosquitoes: “[Back then] I didn’t know which was better – living in Congo, facing the conflict, or sleeping on the streets in Kampala,” a tearful Kisimba said, remembering the hardships. 

  His experience was hardly unique. When he arrived in Uganda he joined over 1.5 million other refugees living in the country, the vast majority of whom were from Sudan and DR Congo, almost all living in unsafe, impoverished conditions.  

A Congolese refugee trains in hair making

Life as a refugee in Uganda 

On paper, refugees in Uganda have a much better life than refugees in many other countries. They enjoy the right to word and to freedom of movement, and the right to access government services such as education. However, according to Arthur Musombwa, a Congolese refugee who has been living in Uganda since 2007, the reality is that life in Uganda is harsh for refugees and is fraught with suffering. 

  Poverty, malnutrition, and ill health characterize life both inside and outside the resettlement communities. In the communities, food and clean water are scarce. Outside, refugees rent shelter in crowded, impoverished areas – when they can find someone who agrees to rent to refugees. Even then, those who do agree to rent homes to refugees charge more than what they would charge non-refugees. Language barriers and finances are obstacles to getting healthcare. And although legally refugees have the right to work, the reality is that very few find jobs. 

  Treatment by the host country is discriminatory, Musombwa said: “Refugees here are often victims of illegal arrests, and police and army brutality. Because of this, when most refugees spot the police or the army, they start running. Not because they’ve done anything wrong, but because they’re scared of being arrested or beaten up for doing nothing.” 

  Kisimba corroborated Musombwa’s story, saying that the dynamic between refugees and many Ugandan citizens is troubled: “We sometimes get beaten up by some citizens and if we report to the police, nothing will be done because we are refugees. They don’t think we have rights since it’s not our country.” 

Members of one of the savings groups during a meeting

Collective action 

In 2016, a small group of Congolese refugees in Uganda, including Musombwa, decided to try to unite other Congolese refugees under a common platform, to connect with each other and find solutions to their problems. They formed the Congolese Refugee Community in Uganda (CRCU) in February 2017. “We decided to build a network and come up with a good framework of assistance to our people.”  

  The CRCU now has members from all refugee camps in Uganda, as well as from areas outside the camps, and offers many programs and activities to assist refugees. Since 2017, the leaders estimate they have helped over 2,300 people. To maintain contact with members, every three months representatives visit the various refugee camps to check on conditions and update members on recent events in the association. 

  In 2017, Kisimba was still living on the streets of Kampala, but association members noticed him, assisted him with the paperwork required for living in Uganda, and provided him with shelter. From that time on his fortunes took a turn for the better. He signed up for the association’s English language program right away, and today he is able to communicate effectively in English.  

  Since its founding, the association has launched many programs. Some are available in all the camps. However, because of financial constraints, the free English-language program and the free daycare program for children younger than 5 years old are, unfortunately, only available at the office in Kampala. Currently, there are 270 people enrolled in three levels of English classes in Kampala. These take place weekly from Monday to Friday.  

  Job creation is at the core of CRCU’s programs in all locations. The association provides free three-month sessions in hair care, soap making, tailoring, catering, and cosmetology. At the end of the sessions, successful graduates earn certificates and receive assistance in finding opportunities to use their new skills. 

  And CRCU has built a legal team of association members to represent Congolese refugees in need. If someone is arrested, CRCU sends representatives to bail them out, or to provide legal advice on how best to handle the situation. Benedict Bwira and other members of this team have a background in law from DR Congo.  

Some graduates of the CRCU’s skills acquisition program

“I’m a lawyer by profession. I was practicing back home but, of course, I can’t do that here. Now I volunteer my knowledge and experience, and I am enjoying it,” Bwira said. He is the association’s general secretary, in addition to participating as a member of the legal team. Assisting Unaccompanied and Separated Children (UASC) is also part of CRCU’s mission, and when possible, children are helped with food, money, and clothes. 

  CRCU started a group savings program to help Congolese refugees gain financial freedom and ensure that they could access funds in emergencies. Each savings group has 15-30 members, and all savings deposits are recorded in a book kept by the association. In addition, each group member has an individual record book where their deposits are noted. The refugees contribute to their savings accounts for a period of six months, after which they can withdraw funds and start a new, six-month saving period, if desired. In emergency situations, depositors are allowed early access to their funds. CRCU provides each savings group with briefcases to keep their group’s money safe. At present, CRCU operates 27 savings groups. 

  CRCU also runs a psychosocial therapy program to help Congolese refugees. Most refugees have experienced trauma, and mental health symptoms trouble people who live through traumatic events. In addition, living in poverty and fear creates problems. Ombeni, who is 30 years old, has lived in Uganda since 2015 and spoke of her challenges: “I am a single mother of seven, and when I have issues with food, rent, and school fees, my mental health is affected. Other times, I look at the way we are treated here, and it makes me sad. But whenever I share my problems and concerns at the association, they always provide support to me, offer words of encouragement, and they tell me that being a refugee isn’t an identity, but a condition that will end someday.” 

Desire to do more 

Funding is a major challenge for the association. At present, programs and activities are funded primarily from member contributions. During weekly meetings, which are held every Wednesday in different locations, the leaders place a bucket and ask members to donate whatever amount they can. They also visit churches to solicit support. However, the money is never enough to support the programs of the association. “Life in Uganda is hard. If other organizations and individuals can support us, we could do more, and be better,” said Douglas Bulongo, president of CRCU. 

  What the refugees really want is peace, and a return to their homeland. “Congo is my country. Peace should return so I and others can go back home. There’s no place like home,” Benedict Bwira said. 

  But in the meantime, CRCU has become a family to Congolese refugees such as Kisimba. He said, “There were times I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I just wanted to be alone. But now, I have people that I can always talk to, and feel like I’m with my family.” 

As of April 30, 2023, Uganda was home to 868,930 refugees from Sudan and 489,220 from DR Congo. No one knows how many more refugees will enter Uganda as a result of the current conflict in Sudan.  

Contact CRCU at [email protected]