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Life as a Refugee in Uganda Is Full of Opportunity and Frustration

Uganda's open policy allows refugees to start a new life—and even a new business. But not all of them thrive.

Tailor and mother of ten Mimy, from DRC, in her shop in Nakivale settlement. Photo by Anna Patton

A folk tale made famous by the late Kenyan activist Wangari Maathai tells of a forest fire that causes all the animals to flee. As they stare helplessly at the huge flames, only the hummingbird sets to work, carrying tiny beakfuls of water back and forth.

"What's the point?" the others ask. The hummingbird pauses just long enough to reply: "I'm doing the best I can!" The story is a favorite of 25-year-old Patrick and his younger brother, who fled five years ago from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to the Nakivale refugee settlement in southwest Uganda. The brothers, both artists, ran educational workshops for young people in the settlement, and—until they had to sell their laptop—an animated version of the hummingbird tale was one of the videos they screened. The message is apt: with 115,00 refugees in Nakivale alone, and well over half a million nationwide, the brothers' contribution is minute.


Around the world, some 65 million people—refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced people—were driven from their home in 2015, the highest number since records began; developing countries host 86 percent of them. (The six wealthiest nations, representing half the global economy, are home to just 2.1 million.)

Many governments don't allow refugees to seek formal employment; some grant the right to work but effectively prevent it with high permit fees or strict rules that keep refugees in camps. Not in Uganda. Here, refugees—mostly from South Sudan, DRC, Burundi, and Somalia—are allowed to move freely, start a business, and work for others. Some settle in cities, but most are allocated small plots of land in government-managed settlements, where the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and its partners provide some healthcare and welfare services; they get materials to build basic homes on their plots. The UNHCR, increasingly looking for long-term solutions as conflicts around the world drag on, says the policy could be a model for governments everywhere.

Uganda's policy makes it "one of the best places to stay for refugees," said Robert Hakiza, who arrived in 2008 and could be a poster child for the tight-knit Congolese community here (more refugees and migrants from DRC end up in Uganda than any other African country). Soon after reaching Uganda, he cofounded a nonprofit aimed at helping other urban refugees find their feet. Today, the organization employs 15 staff.


Hakiza's is not the only success story. Research by the University of Oxford in 2014 in two settlements in Uganda—officials avoid the term "camps" since these are more like normal village settings, where people can come and go freely—found that only 1 percent of refugees were not employed; the rest were in employment or self-employed. They contribute to the economy, trading with, hiring, or working for Ugandans. In the capital Kampala, Congolese refugees and immigrants dominate the low-end jewelry trade: associated with the gold that is mined in DRC, they tend to be trusted above other nationalities by Ugandan buyers. "This business can't exist without refugees," said Hakiza. "You don't see many Ugandans competing."

That worked in Chantale's* favor, a widow and mother of five who began selling jewelry after she arrived in 2009. Two years ago, she impulsively bought three handbags, and was stopped on her way to work by someone who asked if they were for sale.

Rubondo village in Nakivale settlement, where a group of Burundians recently settled. Photo by Anna Patton

"They were for me!" she recalled, laughing gleefully, "but I said 'Yes, yes, I'm selling them.'" The customer asked if she had any more; thinking quickly, Chantale said she had others at home. The next day, other customers wanted purses. By early 2016, no longer selling jewelry, she had her own shop in a predominantly Congolese suburb of Kampala.

It's not all rosy, though. "People think I have a lot of money," she said, gesturing to the Puma hold-alls, the FC Barcelona rucksacks, the dusty trainers around her. "But it's all debt." Suppliers give her goods on credit; witty and warm-hearted, affectionate even with those she's just met, it's unsurprising they trust her. Now, though, she is plagued by worry: "Clients need to be paid, and I'm not selling," she said. Freedom to do business only goes so far without access to some capital. Some international organizations offer loans: Chantal is still trying to repay the 500,000 shillings [$140] she says she got from the Jesuit Refugee Service some time ago. But such offers are few compared to the level of demand, while micro-loans are out of reach for most. Research by Hakiza and others in 2016 found that of the over 100 micro-finance institutions in Uganda, only a few have refugees as clients.


Access to customers is also crucial. Chantale thinks she will have to give up the shop. But going back to hawking on the streets is not a real option, since the Kampala city authorities outlawed this recently. What will she do? "I don't know," she replied. "I have a million questions." But it's when talking about her children that Chantale's voice by turn falters, then rises bitterly. Her younger kids have not been to school this term. "Life as a refugee is an insult," she said. One of her sons was set to complete a PhD before they fled. "Now he's just at home. That disturbs me," she said quietly. Women make up nearly half the global refugee population, and many flee unaccompanied.

Forty-one-year-old Mimy's husband was kidnapped in DRC, she said: to this day she doesn't know if he's alive. With her ten children—now aged five to 22—she scraped by in Kampala for two years. Nearly 80,000 refugees and asylum-seekers are registered in the capital, where there are some opportunities to work, but little assistance for refugees. Then someone told Mimy about the settlements. About the food, the clinics, the primary schools. "OPM [the Office of the Prime Minister, responsible for refugee management] sent a vehicle for me and my things," she said. They were taken to Nakivale: "They gave me a plot. It's small, but I don't have to pay rent anymore." Mimy sold two mattresses to start a tailoring business, which she now runs from a rented one-room building with one of her daughters.


She is tense, unsmiling, when asked about life today. All the family have had to go to hospital at some point since moving here, and she refuses to send her children to the free schools—the teachers are not well paid and neglect the kids, she said. And business has slowed. Among the brightly colored fabrics lining the shop walls, four white wedding dresses are on display; it's hard to imagine great demand for them here.

Ugandans and refugees of many nationalities trade at the weekly market in Nakivale settlement. Photo by Anna Patton

Rent payments for the shop are a worry. But not working is not an option: there are mouths to feed. Refugees in the settlements are entitled to food aid: portions of maize, beans, and oil for each person. Many complain the quantities are not enough, though officials point out that plots of land are big enough to sustain a household. For Mimy's large family, it's a struggle. "My sons look at me and tell me they're not full," she said. Other necessities, like soap, have to be paid for. The handouts may well decrease. The number of those fleeing to Uganda shot up this year, with renewed violence in South Sudan driving more than 75,000 people over the border in little over a month this summer. Crises in Burundi and DRC continue. The Ugandan government shows no signs, yet, of turning new arrivals away (rather, they are opening up new settlements); Uganda sees itself as a role model and mediator in a troubled region. But standard plot sizes have already been halved. And, desperately short of funding, the UN and the Ugandan government announced in August that they would halve food and cash assistance given to those who had arrived before July 2015. The last time he collected his allowance, said Patrick, he got three kilos of maize and a kilo of beans to last the month. Uganda may be doing what it can to put out the fires, but for some that is painfully little.


The entrepreneurial or the fortunate can build a decent life. Nshimye, a pig farmer and shopkeeper, managed to move his allocated plot in Nakivale to an area of higher footfall, and now plans to open a pork restaurant there. In Kampala, Michel* started out as a community interpreter for a nonprofit organization, but realized he could make more money working for himself. Today he owns a shop and three motorcycle taxis, and employs workers on his land.

For many, though, the freedom they enjoy is relative. Alex, a 29-year-old filmmaker from DRC, has lived in Nakivale for nine years, and now leads a group that makes educational dramas. Their latest tells of a villager's reluctance to send his kids to school—and of course, his change of heart by the end of the film. The team rents basic cameras and laptops by the day, paying actors in drinks and using what Alex calls their "technique" to overcome a lack of microphones: "We tell them to speak loudly," he explained. But Nakivale still sometimes feels to Alex "like a prison": though one of the closer settlements to Kampala, it's still a six-hour drive away. Some analysts warn that opportunities for self-sufficiency in the settlements are overstated, and that pressure to be entrepreneurial is unreasonable given the isolation and poverty refugees face. Alex has met some of the journalists and researchers who visit, but he desperately craves more outside connections. "We are not refugees in our minds. We have studied, we have abilities," said Wane, a writer and director who works with him. "Here we feel like we're in a hole. It's difficult to get out."


A shopkeeper in a trading center near Oruchinga settlement in southwest Uganda: traders get custom from both refugees and Ugandans, plus some Tanzanians who cross the nearby border. Photo by Anna Patton

"You find someone who can dance very well, but there is no opportunity for dancers here," agreed Patrick, whose gentle, soft-spoken presence seems at odds with his talk of fighting for rights, for justice. "It's like no one cares."

Officials say refugees are free to move around and to work on their own projects. In practice, they are limited by money, many lacking the means to pay even the bus fare to the next town. And some refugees say they need to obtain permission to travel; others say that it's not required, but it's best to ask in case of problems later. And, as Patrick said: "If someone doesn't agree with you they can just stop you."

Many dream of a better life elsewhere: Alex talks of friends who have been resettled in the US, Canada, Denmark, and Norway. "People think that's the only solution," said Patrick, "and that you're a lifelong failure if you fail to go." Chances are slim, though. The UNHCR resettlement target for Nakivale is just 700 this year. Worldwide, destination country quotas mean the UN agency only expects to resettle up to 170,000 refugees in 2017, out of the 1.19 million considered eligible.

Patrick sees his future in Uganda—but it wasn't always so. For many months he suffered from stress and headaches. "I was very traumatized thinking about my family and how my life had become a nightmare," he said. He considered suicide. Only responsibility for his brother, aged 15 when they fled, stopped him. By now, his mindset is very different: "I'm not a victim anymore of my past," he said.

Last autumn, Patrick heard about the Social Innovation Academy (SINA), a residential camp for young entrepreneurs 40 km [25 miles] outside Kampala. Founded by a young German in late 2014, it's now home to some 50 youths, mostly Ugandans, plus a handful of refugees. Patrick and his brother arrived in January this year and have been developing their ideas since. It's a good fit: SINA emphasizes learning from others and making a living from one's passions. And there's no hierarchy. "I feel like I'm free [here]," Patrick said. Yet in August, the brothers left their new home—where residents get free board and three meals a day—to return to Nakivale.

They want to create an offshoot of SINA, where young people will be able to access computers, create art, learn new skills. An Indian education organization is interested in partnering with them and, Patrick hopes, will co-finance new equipment. "I left the settlement for good," he explained. "But then I was thinking about our project and the impact it had on people's lives. I really feel like if I'm around, I can do something."

Patrick describes himself as an entrepreneur—but money has never been the objective. His way of being the hummingbird is helping others see their future differently. "I want them to know they can start their life in Nakivale," he said. "Happiness is a choice."

*Some names have been changed, and last names omitted. The reporter's travel costs were covered by a One World Media grant.