Loaves of bread bring happiness
By Violet Ikong
Every morning before 7 a.m. Dusabimana Chantal, a 29-year-old refugee single mother, walks for over an hour to her place of work – the ADAMÂ Bakery, located at the Oruchinga Settlement Camp in southwest Uganda’s Isingiro District. The settlement hosts approximately 8,000 of over 1.4 million refugees living in Uganda. The refugees in Oruchinga are primarily from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, and Chantal’s home country of Rwanda. Her parents brought her to the settlement in 1994, when she was just 5 months old, to escape the Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, the bloody ethnic conflict killed between 800,000 and 1 million people in a period of 100 days.
Chantal’s family found refuge in the settlement, but also serious challenges, especially hunger and poverty. “There was no food, no clothes, and no money,” she recalled. Although refugees get monthly cash assistance from the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the money is usually not enough to last the month. This is because aid agencies like the UNHCR continue to face funding problems and often have to make deep cuts to the cash assistance refugees really need. The only way to survive is for refugees to start businesses or get jobs – like working at the ADAMÂ Bakery.
Baking can have a positive impact
The ADAMÂ Bakery is a project of ADAMÂ Foundation, a nonprofit focused on baking bread and building communities in refugee camps and other places of need around the world. Its founder, Ayelet Berman-Cohen, grew up in Israel, where she witnessed conflict. Now living in the U.S., she created the foundation in 2020 to help refugees whose lives have been impacted by conflict and wars, starting with those in Oruchinga.
Jeffrey Hamelman, a 72-year-old American baker who lives in Vermont, heard about the ADAMÂ Foundation in 2021. He was intrigued by its plan to set up a bakery for refugees in Oruchinga and talked with Berman-Cohen. He ended up traveling to Uganda to train refugees in baking and help establish the bakery – all as a volunteer. A professional baker for over 46 years, Hamelman believes baking can have a positive impact on communities, and saw the ADAMÂ project as an opportunity to create that positive impact among the Oruchinga refugees.
During my third visit, I was invited to visit Ryan’s compound. It consisted of three or four mud and wattle huts, roofed with tin sheets covered with branches and stones. This extra weight is a safety measure – during storms, if the roof flies off, not only can this cause serious harm to someone on the ground, it also means that the contents of the hut can be ruined by rain. In Uganda, it is customary to feed every visitor. If there is no food, the visitor is given water. I was the visitor, and had the place of honor on a plastic chair surrounded by members of Ryan’s family. There are 13 in his family, and since the main hut where we sat could only hold six or seven, different members cycled in and out every so often. I had brought honey from the bees I keep in Vermont as a gift to Ryan’s mother. A plate was brought out with several dried fish on it. They were small and bony. Protein and calcium. I was not sure how to eat the one that I received, so I watched Ryan. He started at the tail and slowly worked his way to the head. I followed his lead, careful to crunch the bones into small pieces before swallowing. After a while, he began eating the head. “Do you eat the entire fish?” I asked. “I eat everything except the gills,” he said. “But my sister likes them.” She got two extra that day. What a gift, to be part of this beautiful, simple, common hospitality that characterizes the best of humanity. I absorbed more than fish from the experience. —Jeffery Hamelman
Hamelman arrived in Uganda in September 2021 and spent two weeks training 25 refugees, mostly women, on the essentials of baking. The visit exposed him to what life is like for refugees. “Nobody wants to live in a refugee camp. Most of the people [there] live in very small buildings made out of mud. They have no electricity, and they have to walk some distance to procure water. … I heard stories of what some of the refugees had experienced, like parents being shot, houses burned, fleeing into the forest, losing contact with family, being raped while on the run … and not knowing what’s become of family,” he said.
Hamelman and Sara Molinaro, another baker who accompanied him to Uganda, trained the group of 25 women in using a wood-burning oven as well as other equipment. The women learned, but were still far from mastering the art of bread making when the Americans had to return home.
Six months later, in March 2022, Hamelman returned to the settlement for another two weeks to further train the refugees, this time in the company of another baker, Mitch Stamm. In September 2022, Hamelman again returned, this time for four weeks, and by the end of that visit the women had mastered the efficient baking of bread and also cakes.
Several refugees are benefitting
The women bake bread to serve two ends – feeding hungry unaccompanied minors, and earning a living; the bakers are paid $3 (UGX11,071.62) daily as wages. The minors are children who fled wars in their countries without their parents or guardians. According to the UNHCR, children make up about 40% of the world’s displaced population, and over 150,000 displaced children in the world are unaccompanied and separated from adult family members.
In Uganda, there are over 39,000 unaccompanied minors. “The children are really vulnerable, always on the streets begging, with not enough support. So, our program supports them with food,” said Angella Kushemererwa, the Ugandan co-manager of ADAMÂ Bakery. “When they get to the age of about 18, some of them can also be employed [in the bakery], but in the meantime, the best we can do for them is provide them with bread to support their nutrition.”
The bakery is open from Monday to Saturday. On Fridays, bakers and staff head out to distribute free bread to the unaccompanied minors. Sometimes they also give out sweaters to help the children manage the cold. During the distribution, members of the host community go along to help spread messages of hope to the children. Each child is given bread once a month, which is all the nonprofit can support.
“It is so difficult and heartbreaking that we can’t manage to give all of them bread every week because we can’t produce enough due to funding challenges. When some get and others don’t, it’s always sad,” said Sophie Karungi, Kushemererwa’s co-manager.
But for the children, having a loaf of bread once a month is better than having no bread at all, and they look forward to each bread visit.
We had been baking for just a day or two when we made our first foray deep into the settlement to distribute bread to the children. Angella and Sophie had chosen the community and had communicated our intention to the village elder. Kevin drove the van. Sarah and I were in the back, transfixed by the scenes of desolate squalor in every direction. We arrived at our destination, and Sophie, a true Pied Piper, roused all the children with singing and chanting and clapping of hands. Then we handed out the bread – hundreds and hundreds of buns to hundreds and hundreds of outstretched hands. There was raucous elation all around until it happened – as it does at every bread distribution – that moment when the jubilation turns in an instant to despair. It’s when the buns run out, but the desperate hands yearning for a brief cessation of the anguish of their bellies remain outstretched. We returned to the van and I felt defeated, depressed, completely crestfallen. And complicit. “Why are you unhappy? We have just given bread to hundreds of children,” Angella said. I responded, “Angella, I have lived a life of comfort, where I have never lacked for anything … [and] the conditions I have just seen are partially the result of the inequities perpetrated by my culture.”
The women bakers are grateful to be employed by the bakery. “Working here has changed my life because I now have something to eat, I’m earning some money, and my community members [refugee children] are also benefiting through the free bread we give to them,” said Mukamana Clementine, a refugee from Rwanda who has been living in the settlement since 2002.
Poverty is such a big problem in the camp that some women trade sex for provisions. “Several of [the female refugees] exchange sex for food, sex for firewood, and suffer different violations in the community. But the presence of the bakery has reduced all of that because the women who work here earn money to take care of themselves and their families,” Kushemererwa said.
And working together has helped to build a support system for the women. Strong ties have formed between them. “I have friends, and they may seem like they’re just colleagues, but they are family. The bakery gave me that family,” said Bienfait Moses, a refugee from DR Congo who works at the bakery and has lived in the settlement since 2017 after escaping a violent conflict.
Karungi agreed, “It’s really interesting to see how they work together despite their different nationalities. [The bakery] is a place that brings them unity and peace.”
Hamelman has also reaped benefits from the bakery project. “The beauty of sharing humanity with fellow humans with no judgment, no preconceptions, just the simple, most basic sharing, one human to another. That’s the greatest thing I’ve received from this experience,” he said.
Grateful even with challenges
The bakery faces challenges around funding. There no permanent source of funds for the foundation and its equipment is inadequate. But even so, the leadership team and bakery training team remain committed to the project, and hope to build a bigger bakery soon so that bread production can increase and children can access bread more than once a month. And women like Chantal remain grateful that they have a source of income. “I can now pay the school fees of my two children with the money I earn from the bakery. That is a [huge] relief for me as a single mother.”