By Violet Ikong

World Refugee Day celebration in Uganda (Photo credit: Mighty Fire FM)

Once a year, on June 20, people all over the world mark World Refugee Day to honor those who have been forced to flee their countries due to persecution or human-made disasters such as conflict, war, climate change, or because of natural disasters. The global population of forcibly displaced people was estimated to be 108.4 million at the end of 2022, with the refugee population over 35 million people, according to the United Nations’ refugee agency, the UNHCR. East Africa, including countries in the Horn of Africa, as well as the Great Lakes region, provide refuge for 4.9 million of the refugees and asylum seekers. In 2022, Uganda hosted the greatest number of refugees in Africa, with a refugee population of over 1.4 million, followed by Sudan at 1.11 million refugees. But with the ongoing conflict in Sudan, hundreds of thousands of additional refugees are now on the move, seeking safety, including those previously hosted by Sudan, who have now fled to neighboring countries.

Refugees help others face challenges

Like refugees all around the world, African refugees face enormous challenges, but most also demonstrate remarkable resilience in facing those challenges.

Many have created social enterprises, nonprofit organizations, and support groups that work to advance the United Nations’ sustainable development goals (SDGs), improve the lives of refugees, and build cohesion between refugees and members of their host communities. On World Refugee Day, Amjambo Africa shines the spotlight on some of the refugee-led responses to social problems in Africa.

“Throughout my journey as a refugee, I have been privileged to witness remarkable innovation, creativity, and untapped potential among my fellow displaced individuals, including myself. These experiences have solidified my belief that refugees, too, harbor dreams and can drive positive change at a global scale.”

—Raphael Akonkwa, a refugee from DR Congo, who has been living in Uganda since 2010.

Addressing the stigma of mental health challenges

According to the American Psychiatric Association, about one out of three asylum seekers or refugees suffers depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Raphael Akonkwa, from DR Congo, battled depression when he was newly arrived in Uganda. But seeking help was difficult because of the stigma associated with mental health challenges. He did eventually find help for himself, however, and decided to start Poetherapy, a nonprofit that he launched in 2020. The mission is to help other refugees in Uganda find help for depression and break the stigma around mental health.

His organization presents mental health awareness activities in schools and organizes social events where music, poetry, and comedy are used to encourage discussion of mental health. The organization offers helplines where refugees can call to seek help and advice about mental health challenges. Akonkwa says his group has reached over 500 refugees in Uganda with talks and discussions on depression and mental health, and that over 100 refugees with mental health challenges have been connected with online and in person mental health experts.

Raphael Akonkwa, founder of Poetherapy
Refugees attending a mental health awareness event organized by Poetherapy

Finding solutions to plastic pollution

After four years of watching plastics being disposed of incorrectly at the Bidibidi Refugee Camp in Uganda, Emmanuel Lomoro, a South Sudanese refugee, decided to do something to protect the environment. He began to seek ways to save the camp from plastic pollution and in 2020 founded the nonprofit Generous Designs Africa (GDA), which recycles and upcyles plastic waste. The organization recycles plastics to make rulers, pegs, buttons, and cups, and collects old and discarded tarpaulins given to refugees by aid agencies such as the UNHCR as base materials for making waterproof school bags for refugee children. Refugee widows and single mothers serve as waste collectors, and they are paid by the piece. The women use the money to provide for their children’s needs. “My dream is to see that our community is free from plastic waste and that refugees and host community members can have access to employment opportunities,” said 24-year-old Lomoro. The organization carries out awareness activities each month in the camp to teach refugees the dangers of plastic pollution and to train refugee youth, women, and host community members in upcycling and recycling.

Education, food, and healing for refugee children

Students at YOBAC’s school being taught tree planting

Albert Djuma, a refugee from DR Congo living in the Kyangwali Refugee Camp in Uganda, runs a community-based organization called Youth Organization for Building African Communities (YOBAC). This organization provides free and quality nursery and primary school education as well as meals to over 300 refugee children from in the camp. A similar initiative, Tahirih Preschool, is run by Lyama Amadi, a refugee from DR Congo living in Kenya’s Kakuma Refugee Camp since 2011. The Tahirih Preschool provides free education in the basics to over 250 refugee children and also offers enrichment activities such as art and gardening. The children learn how to grow fresh vegetables and many teach their parents to do the same. All children at this school eat a free lunch every school day.

Stephen Wandu, a South Sudanese refugee living in the Bidibidi Refugee Camp in Uganda, uses music to unite and help refugee children from his country find healing and happiness. His focus is on unaccompanied and separated children (UASC) who had to flee without their parents or guardians. Wandu teaches the children to sing and to create and produce songs about issues affecting their country, South Sudan, in addition to calling for peace so they can return home. His nonprofit organization, I Can South Sudan (ICSS), also provides counseling services to refugee children who face mental health challenges. And the children are taught how to protect themselves from abuse in the camp and where to seek help. Occasionally, the organization makes available free sanitary towels to refugee girls. ICSS also supports refugee children living with disabilities by training parents of children living with cerebral palsy, autism, Down syndrome, hydrocephalus, microcephaly, and epilepsy on how best to care for the children.

Some students at YOBAC’s school queuing up for lunch

Building peace and cohesion 

When South Sudanese refugee Kuol Arou was 14, he was recruited by an armed group and forced to become a child soldier and fight in the Darfur War that preceded the founding of the nation of South Sudan. When the country gained independence in 2011, Arou was thrilled and believed he would be able to live in peace. Unfortunately, civil war broke out and he fled, ending up in the Ayilo 1 Refugee Camp in Uganda in 2014. At this camp, which consists primarily of South Sudanese refugees, he witnessed conflict between different tribes and with the host community. He believed these conflicts developed because of struggles connected with inadequate resources.

With the help of others, Arou started the nonprofit Shabab Peace and Environment Action Group (SPEAK Uganda) in 2018, with the aim of bringing people together in the Ayilo 1 and Ayilo 2 refugee camps. His organization offers sporting activities such as football and chess, and leads community service efforts, such as the clearing of bushes and the planting of trees in the host community. These activities have helped to strengthen peaceful ties between the refugees and members of their host community.

World Refugee Day celebration in Uganda (Photo credit: Mighty Fire FM)

Remarkable Resilience

Once out of immediate harm’s way, refugees who reach relative safety in camps realize they are caught in a web of hardships that will impede their integration and their quest for a better life. Yet according to Raphael Akonkwa, most exhibit remarkable human qualities as they face their challenges. Many turn to helping others as well as themselves, and some found organizations with service missions, employing problem-solving skills to find solutions to social problems – all while facing their own significant challenges. “Challenges abound, including language barriers and cultural differences. To enhance integration, society must prioritize language support, promote cultural exchange, combat discrimination, and foster collaboration with refugee communities,” Amonkwa said, adding that World Refugee Day should celebrate and honor the remarkable qualities of all refugees.

Emmanuel Ayul, a South Sudanese refugee trapped in Sudan’s ongoing conflict, lamented: “Right now, I don’t know what World Refugee Day means to me or to other refugees out there. But I do know that living as a refugee isn’t something good, and it’s worse for those who had fled to a country like Sudan for protection, only to be trapped again in [the country of refuge] due to more conflict.”

Emmanuel Lomoro, founder of Generous Designs Africa

As refugees around the world commemorate this day, Akonkwa sends words of encouragement: “Please know that you’re not alone during these challenging times. Remain hopeful, strong, and resilient.

Amjambo Africa has published stories about all of the African refugee-led responses highlighted in this article and others. See and previously printed editions.