I didn’t know what to expect when we arrived at the Palabek resettlement community for South Sudanese Refugees. Would it be rows on rows of UNHCR tents, like I saw when I went to an IDP camp in Kenya after the political unrest? Would it be lots of makeshift buildings, all squished up tight to each other and as a result everyone living on top of each other?
When we arrived, it was neither of these – instead it was a reception centre that had a number of semi-permanent ‘welcome tents’, a health centre and tents that served as headquarters for the different agencies who are working there. And beyond that was a large area of ‘scrubland’, (50km square) with small trees and bushes everywhere and scattered throughout little groups of mud thatch single room homes. The homes are all built in the traditional style – round, with a single door, no windows, and a pointy thatch roof. Each home is about 4-5m in diameter and houses a single family – which could be anything from 3 to 13 people, depending on how many escaped the horrors of the war.
The settlement is broken down into zones, and each zone is in split into blocks, so everyone has an ‘address’ of zone (number), block (letter). The settlement has been there since refugees started arriving in 2017 and the number living there now is in the many thousands, but thanks to the amount of space that was gifted for the settlement by local Ugandans, there isn’t any sort of feeling of overcrowding.
I was visiting the settlement as part of the team of staff from I Live Again Uganda, a local NGO who are delivering trauma counselling to the refugees, and who are a partner of CRED Foundation. I’ve been involved in their work before, in the villages around Gulu where people still live in the long shadow of the civil war that ravaged the area in the 1980’s – 2006, but this was my first time to Lamwo with them.
It was a real honour to be able to serve this community, and ILA, through delivery of some training materials that I’ve recently been developing. Aspects of the training include learning more about the brain, aspects of its functionality with regards to behaviour, identity, memory-making, and individual responses. It also looks at trauma, and how that can impact functionality of the brain, and then moves to healing and wellbeing. So it’s a wide-ranging overview, but it was so well received.
The participants were from different leadership groups on each day: first off we had about 25 church leaders from various denominational backgrounds. Then on the second day I spoke with 15 tribe and clan leaders, who between represent most of the tribes who can be found in the settlement. And then on the third day I led training for about 40 ‘resettlement welfare leaders’ who essentially are locally elected leaders of the blocks and or zones.
So, leadership was one recurrent theme, and fleeing from war was another. Some of them shared bits of their stories at times during the different days – stories of loss, pain, fear and terror, stories that no-one should have to endure, but sadly stories that time and again humans inflict on fellow humans.
The leaders have endured their own personal experiences of this, but despite the pain and loss, they all spoke of their determination to help take their people forward. None know if or when they will be able to return to South Sudan. None know fully what they are taking their little communities forward into. But they all have a dogged determination to do their best for those they lead, and to do what they can to help them move onwards and upwards, one day at a time.
Some have been here weeks; some have been here months. For some this isn’t their first time as a refugee, and each time the willingness to return gets a little less, as the pain of previous returns gets a little more.
Leading the training for these wonderful men and women and enabling and equipping them, and the ILA staff, with new knowledge and tools to assist with their journey was a real privilege. They were so effusive in their thanks and in their praise of the training programme, which compared to all that they have been through felt so small. But I’m glad I was able to give it to them, as a gift, and I pray that it will reap blessings on them and on others beyond our wildest expectations.
And as they go forwards into their tomorrows, I pray that those tomorrows will be better days than the yesterdays that they have left behind; and that their passion and determination for making their world a better place will reach far into the lands around them. And I pray also for ILA, who are doing such amazing ongoing counselling support for these folks, week in and week out. Selfless servants of Christ if ever I saw them.