Until I read “The Beekeeper of Aleppo”, I had always imagined refugee camps as large, tented communities surrounded by barbed wire fencing. Recent events closer to home have made me realise that this isn’t always the case, but I wasn’t sure what to expect when we arrived at the Kyangwali Refugee Settlement on the shores of Lake Albert, in Uganda.
What's in this post:
What were we doing in Kyangwali?
If you are a regular reader, you will know that I am incredibly passionate about the work Street Child does. And since we were in Uganda to go gorilla trekking, I wanted to learn more about the projects that Street Child is involved in outside of Sierra Leone so that I can better continue supporting their efforts.
What is Street Child?
Street Child is a charity that works across the world’s most challenging countries, ensuring the most vulnerable children are in school, safe and learning. It was founded in 2008 after Tom Dannatt travelled to Sierra Leone 6 years after the end of the brutal civil war, which left thousands of kids homeless and living on the streets. Tom pledged to support 100 children back to safe homes and provide them access to primary education. Fifteen years on, Street Child has reached over 950,000 children across 20 countries!
What I particularly like about Street Child is the sustainable nature of the approach they take. Their programs aren’t about throwing lots of money at a problem for a short-term solution. They don’t pay for the kid’s tuition or buy them the uniform. To do that year after year requires a tremendous amount of fundraising. Instead, they take a business-minded approach to provide the most impact for minimal investment. And that is what we were in Uganda to learn about. But before I talk more about Street Child’s work, let me tell you about our time in the Kyangwali refugee settlement.
Uganda’s Refugee Crisis
Uganda is home to over 1.5 million refugees, making it the largest host nation in Africa and the third largest globally. More than 860,000 of those are children. Despite the large number of refugees already being hosted, Uganda keeps its borders open to those fleeing conflict from DRC and South Sudan. There is also a smaller number of refugees from Burundi and Somalia.
There are 13 refugee settlements in Uganda. However, Uganda’s “self-reliance” policy allows refugees freedom of movement within the country and the right to work. I was keen to see this model in practice. What quality of life were they able to carve out for themselves? After all, I was visiting having read the 2016 BBC article that suggested Uganda was “one of the best places to be a refugee”.
So, what is a refugee settlement really like?
Had it not been for the NGO signposts as we bumped our way down the red dirt track into the next village, I would have been none the wiser that we had arrived. Kyangwali stretches over 100 square kilometres and is made up of 35 small villages, each buzzing with people going about their day. Street vendors selling vegetables, motorbikes laden with jackfruits, and kids playing football with deflated balls. It was no different to any of the host villages we had been driving through for the past few hours. The same crooked mud huts with no electricity, clothes hanging to dry, and the lines of hardship etched onto people’s faces.
But we hadn’t come to Kyangwali to see the camp. We had come to understand the work that Street Child and their local charity partners were doing here.
Meeting the Commandant
We hadn’t expected to be introduced to the commandant. And I won’t lie, when we were told we were being given 5 minutes of their time, I was a little nervous. We were ushered into the secretary’s office where we signed in. The secretary then knocked on the door and popped her head in. She muttered something in a language I didn’t understand. There was no reply. I imagined a male military-like authoritative figure who had undoubtedly just given her a cold nod. “What was I going to say to this man?” My curious mind, which is always filled with questions, was suddenly blank. My palms were sweaty. Why did these people think we were important enough to take up the commandant’s time?
But as I walked in the door, I chastised my mind. I had instantly jumped to the wrong conclusion. Sitting in the commandant’s chair was Charlie, a relatively young woman wearing a red football shirt and shorts. She welcomed us with a big smile and shook our hands before taking a whole hour to introduce us to the camp.
She explained Uganda’s approach to refugees and the importance placed on freedom. Their right to feel safe and at home. The ability for them to carve a new life, to run their own business, to move around the country, to send their kids to school, and to be ambitious enough for their kids to get a good enough education so they could go to university. But she also shared the challenges that make so many of these dreams impossible.
The one that resonated the most with me? Education! There simply are not enough schools. There is an average of 1 teacher per 193 kids! Can you imagine teaching 193 kids on your own, without proper facilities, with significantly differing abilities, many of whom are traumatised, in a language that isn’t their mother tongue? It is an impossible task!
How is Street Child tackling this problem?
Street Child works with a number of local charity partners in Uganda, and we were lucky enough to meet three of them. The fact that Street Child works with local partners is one of the reasons I have chosen to dedicate my unwavering support to them. Although a UK-based charity, they are essentially enablers, providing the local charities on the ground with the funds and the support they require to allow them to tackle the problems at hand. This approach allows them to act faster, more efficiently, more sustainably, and with a lot less cost, meaning that your donations can have a much more significant impact!
A great example of these partnerships is CIYOTA, founded by refugees for refugees.
CIYOTA – Good quality education
CIYOTA was started in 2005 by five young Congolese refugees who had not been able to complete their education due to a lack of resources in the settlement. Not wanting the same fate for future kids, they started a club to provide children with additional access to education. They worked hard in manual labour jobs to raise enough funds to send one kid to school. Then 2, then 3.
Eventually, they developed the club into a charity and since 2010, have been changing the lives of thousands of children by providing them with access to quality education. They really emphasised the importance of quality, which shone through in everything they showed us.
As I mentioned above, government-funded schools are massively oversubscribed, with an average of 193 kids per teacher. And even with that many kids per class, there still isn’t enough space for all kids. Currently, 25% of primary-age children are out of school. But even more shockingly, 86% of children don’t make it to secondary school.
But even those that do go to school aren’t necessarily learning. Not only is it impossible if there are nearly 200 kids in each class, but most of the kids arrive not speaking English, Uganda’s official language. Congolese children speak French. South Sudanese children speak Arabic. How are they going to learn anything if they don’t understand it?
The full package
CIYOTA has two schools in Kyangwali, a primary school and a secondary school, both of which accept both day and boarding students. But it wasn’t so much the school, the facilities, or the staff that impressed me. It was the rounded package that they offer every child to ensure they have the skills necessary to succeed when they finish school. If they wish to attend university, they help prepare them for a successful career. For those who don’t want to continue with education, they teach them entrepreneurial and creative skills so that they can run their own businesses.
They welcome kids and young adults of all ages and teach them using the “teaching at the right level” methodology, which is an approach used to help children catch up with foundational skills. Learners are grouped based on their learning abilities and not their age group for a more interactive and engaging approach. This does mean you could find teenage kids in primary school while they receive additional tutoring to accelerate their learning, but at least they are being taught at the right level.
The Family Business Scheme
There are many barriers to education, but one of the main ones is the lack of funds. This is where the Family Business Scheme comes into play, and it is one of the projects I feel most passionate about. I speak about the Family Business Scheme at length in both my Sierra Leone Marathon Blog and my Bike Challenge Blog, which I’d recommend you read.
The Family Scheme can best be described using the adage: “Give a man a fish, and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he will eat for life”. Families receive a grant and the necessary training to run their own small businesses. Their progress is monitored to make sure it is successful so that the family can afford to send not just one kid to school, but all of their kids. Not only is this sustainable, but it is highly cost-effective, meaning that donor money can impact a much greater number of vulnerable children. A $200 grant can change the life of an entire family!
We were lucky enough to meet one of the beneficiaries of the Family Scheme in Kyangwali. Gloria had a beautiful, radiant smile. We all sat in her little shop while she breastfed her youngest as she spoke to us in Swahili, explaining how CYOTA and Street Child had changed her life and that of her six children.
This is the same story I have heard from every Family Scheme beneficiary I have met through Street Child.
Cheshire Services is another of Street Child’s partners. They focus on supporting children with disabilities to access inclusive education. I found our meeting with them incredibly emotional. Perhaps it was the accumulation of everything I had already seen, or maybe the fact that it really struck home.
As Daniel was talking us through the additional challenges that disabled kids face, I couldn’t help but think of one of our best friends back at home. Paralysed from the waist down following a motorbike crash, and now wheelchair-bound, I have seen firsthand just how challenging everyday life can be. Life on wheels is tough, even in developed countries where accessibility is given a high degree of importance.
So to think about the implication a disability will have when living in a refugee settlement where resources are already scarce just tipped me over the edge. I couldn’t even begin to fathom the challenge that Street Child and Cheshire Service are facing. Take that one teacher for 193 children and now add a deaf kid to the class. How do you even begin to solve that?
Luckily, Daniel, the project leader for Chesire Services, is incredibly passionate and shares more enthusiasm than I have ever seen bottled into a single person before. So, if anyone can turn their vision into reality, it will be him!
HAF – Hopelink Action Foundation
We finished our trip to Kyangwali by visiting the third of Street Child’s partners: HAF. They focus on supporting children with mental health challenges. Many have experienced unimaginable trauma and, as such, struggle with problems such as anger management or isolation. Some also experience domestic violence at home, which is apparently a big problem in the settlement.
HAF has created a 21-session program that helps kids build resilience and confidence through specially structured games. Where more is needed, they also offer cognitive behavioural therapy.
What am I going to do about it?
I found my time in Kyangwali highly emotional. On the one hand, I was incredibly inspired by the work that so many selfless individuals are doing. But on the other hand, I couldn’t help but shake the anger I feel at the inequality that exists in the world. Why did I get so lucky when so many others didn’t? Spending time both in Kyangwali and Uganda as a whole left me feeling like all the troubles we experience in developed countries are trivial. But are they? Or is it just a matter of perspective?
As often happens when I travel, I was left trying to make sense of the thoughts that were swimming through my head. But there was one that I couldn’t shake. How could I help? The only way I know how: by fundraising. And it is for this reason that I have entered a 50km Ultra Race in Madeira this November. The length of the race alone will be tough, but then add 2,500 metres of elevation, and you can guarantee it will be brutal!
But if my sweat, blood, and tears can help provide a Family Business Scheme grant to support a family to send their kids to school, it is worth it! If you have been inspired by the work that Street Child and their partners are doing in Uganda, then please consider donating. Even if you just donate the cost of a coffee, an ice cream or a pint of beer, your contribution will still make a huge difference!
So while I push myself through 50 km of uphill hell, all I ask is that you skip one treat this week and donate it to the kids of Kyangwali Refugee Settlement instead.
One final thought
So aside from one BIG thanks for your support, I will leave you with one final thought:
“There is no room for judgment when we look at the world from a position of privilege”.