By Violet Ikong
The Kyangwali Refugee Settlement is located in Uganda’s western Kibuube district and houses over 135,000 refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Kenya, Rwanda, Somalia, South Sudan, and Sudan.
Albert Juma is one of these refugees. He first arrived at the Kyangwali settlement in 2004 at the age of 8, along with his parents and three siblings, after fleeing conflict in the eastern region of the DRC. But when Juma’s father contracted a disease after his arrival at the settlement and died four months later, his mother felt unable to raise the children alone in a camp and returned to DRC. Juma began his primary school education back in the DRC, in a milieu rife with violent conflict.
Years of conflict
That conflict began in 2004, when soldiers of the Congolese army attacked and killed civilians in North Kivu, a province in the eastern region of the DRC – where Juma and his family were from. After five years of unrest, peace was restored in 2009, but it didn’t last long. A second phase of the conflict began in 2012 and lasted until 2013. During this period, Juma was separated from his family. When a third phase of the conflict broke out in 2015, he fled to Uganda, and has lived at the Kyangwali Refugee Settlement ever since.The provinces affected by the ongoing violence include Ituri, North Kivu, and South Kivu, all in the eastern region of the country. At issue is a vicious fight for control of vast mineral resources – primarily cobalt, coltan, gold, tantalum, tin, and tungsten – with over 100 rebel groups involved. An estimated five million people have been displaced since the violence began.
A decision to help
When Juma moved to Kyangwali in 2015, he realized quickly that daily life at the camp was fraught with difficulty.
“I saw that poverty, hunger, violence, and drug abuse were common issues here. I also could see that it was difficult for children to have access to quality education,” he said.
Juma decided he wanted to be a part of the solution to the difficulties of life in the camp. So in September 2016, he and some friends founded the Youth Organization for Building African Communities (YOBAC).
“We chose the name Youth Organization for Building African Communities because we realized that as refugees, we come from different countries, cultures, and communities,” he said.
Entrepreneurship, farming, and schools
Juma and his team realized they needed funds to launch some of the activities they envisioned for YOBAC, but since they did not have start-up money, they began to sell portions of their own food.
“We used to get food from humanitarian organizations like the World Food Programme, and we would eat half and sell the rest. We saved the money made from selling our food, and that was how we were able to raise enough money to start our organization,” he said.
With the funds they raised, YOBAC started a livelihood program, their first, an entrepreneurial program that seeks to help refugees meet their own basic needs for food and money. The program is divided into two categories – business and farming.
The business program equips participants with basic knowledge about how to run successful small businesses. People are trained in skills, including tailoring and the weaving of traditional bags, and at the end of the training, they are eligible for loans to start businesses. The loans are made possible through YOBAC’s partnership with Family Co-operative and Credit Society, a cooperative society which gives out loans at low interest rates of 2%. So far, over 200 people have benefitted from this project.
The organization’s second program – the farming program – teaches refugees how to farm, and how to make money from farming.
Juma said, “We started growing crops like maize in 2018, and whenever we harvest…we sell out.”
Additionally, YOBAC provides rabbits for refugees to raise and later sell. Each beneficiary receives a male and a female rabbit. Over 800 rabbits have been distributed so far to over 400 refugees.
“The rabbits reproduce after three months, and keep multiplying. They eat some [of them] and sell some,” he said.
In 2018, YOBAC began providing scholastic support to refugee children enrolled in public schools. At first, support was in the form of uniforms, books, and other writing materials. Then in January 2022, they decided to take the project a step further.
“We realized it was not enough to give scholastic support. The children were learning in unconducive environments. Some classes had over 200 children to one teacher. We knew we had to do something,” Juma said.
So they opened YOBAC Nursery and Primary School, a tuition-free private school. Now over 100 pupils attend the school, and each class has about 10 students per teacher.
“Before my children started schooling there, they were not even attending the public schools. That’s because I could not afford the money to pay for school charges. I am happy that they’re learning right now for free,” said Guistavo Nzamu, a refugee father of four from the DRC who has been living at the settlement since 2010.
The school has 12 teachers who volunteer their services and get stipends at the end of each month. Besides teaching the children to read and write, the teachers also provide psychological support.
“The older children know that this is not home. They understand they had to flee their countries due to conflicts, and sometimes it makes them feel sad and discouraged,” said 38-year-old Karungi William, the school’s head teacher. “We encourage them, and make them know that it’s not the end of the world.”
Other YOBAC activities include awareness programs aimed at eliminating violence, suicide, and drug abuse in the settlement.
“We have several cases of early and unplanned teenage pregnancies, child neglect, suicide, and child marriages in the settlement. What we do is carry out awareness exercises about these issues and provide counseling services to victims of abuse,” Juma said.
Juma and his team of 27 volunteers fund the organization from their own pockets, and from money earned from the sale of their crops. In 2021, they received some foundation support from the Children’s Rights Violence Prevention Fund (CRVPF), which enabled them to reach many more people in the settlement than they previously had been able to do. But since 2021, they have not received any other external support, and therefore expansion efforts have slowed.
A hurdle for this nonprofit is that some people misunderstand their work.
“We deal with people from different countries who have different understandings about what we do. It’s not easy convincing them that we are not trying to exploit them,” Juma said.
But money – and lack of it — remains the greatest hurdle for Juma and his team. Sometimes programs are affected. “What we get as stipends is not enough, and we lack desks and enough classrooms. Sometimes the children have to learn outdoors, since we don’t want to overcrowd them,” said William, the head teacher.
Among YOBAC’s long-term plans are building a modern school with boarding facilities for the children. But in the meantime, Juma and his team are focused on improving the daily lives of refugees now – those who view the Kyangwali settlement as their home.
“This is now my home. I have no plans of going back to the DRC, because even those I left behind there in 2010 keep coming here to join me. My family is safe here, and I’m not leaving,” said Nzamu, a father of four young children.
There are over 27 million refugees worldwide, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The U.S has a record 339,179 refugees while Africa is said to have one-third of the world’s refugee population.