Ugandan expats follow refugee crisis back home

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

Twenty-five people born in Uganda gathered at the Oak Park home of Charles and Elizabeth Chadri for the annual general meeting of a small nonprofit called "Nile Care," the goal of which, according to its website, is partly to "eradicate poverty in the West Nile region of Uganda" by supporting "girl child education."

In the midst of committee reports, budget discussions and consuming platefuls of goat, chippati, ugali, matoke and mandazi, the conversation drifted to the refugee situation in their homeland. A headline in the April 3 issue of The Guardian declared, "Uganda at breaking point as Bidi Bidi becomes world's largest refugee camp."

Many of Nile Care members lamented that so many Americans aren't even aware that over 1 million refugees from the violence in South Sudan are living in Uganda, which is located in the center of Africa, about the size of the state of Oregon and home of an estimated 32 million people. The country has one of the world's most compassionate refugee policies.

Charles Chadri is especially sensitive to the issue because he himself was a refugee in 1979, fleeing to Kenya to escape the violence in Uganda that followed the deposing of Idi Amin and his reign of terror. When he returned to Uganda last summer, he saw things and heard stories that warmed his heart and also depressed him.

What made him feel good is the way Uganda has welcomed refugees from its neighbor to the north.

Vukoni Lup-Lasaga, who himself fled to Congo as a refugee when he was just 13, explained why Uganda has earned this welcoming reputation.  

To begin with, he said, many of the refugees are family and friends because the border between Sudan and Uganda, which was drawn by the British, arbitrarily separated people who spoke the same language, traded with each other and had intermarried for centuries.

The village where his mother and stepfather live, Oruba-Ramoginu is just a short drive on the dirt road that leads from their home to the border with South Sudan.  

"When I went home in January," said the U. of I. doctoral student, "I saw South Sudanese streaming across the border. People are reluctant to leave their homes, and often flee to a relative or friend a short distance from their home at first. But after being internally displaced maybe three times, it gets to be too much and they are willing to cross the border to another country where at least they can be assured a degree of safety."

His parents' home became one of many that Vukoni called a "first port of call." People on both sides of the border already know each other because of family ties or trading relationships or a handsome boy is attracted to a beautiful girl on the other side.  Because the border is very porous, he said, people go back and forth freely.

So when a family makes the decision to leave South Sudan, they already have a network in place. A neighbor will say, "When you get to Oruba-Ramoginu, go to such and such a house and they will give you a meal and a place to sleep." That's before they even get to a refugee distribution center, Vukoni explained.

He pointed to the fact that many Ugandans had themselves been refugees from violence in Uganda and been welcomed as refugees by people in Sudan. "Culturally," he said, "you feel obligated to help relatives, friends and even strangers who are fleeing war because we were once refugees and they assisted us, so there is a sense of reciprocity.

"Somehow you find the means to do it," he added. "Much of this is invisible to the international press."

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