Uganda is home to about 400,000 South Sudanese refugees, making it the largest host country in East Africa. Some refugees who have lived in Uganda for up to a decade do not intend to return home.
Each South Sudanese refugee in Uganda faces different sets of challenges particular to his/her own life, circumstances, and the time spent as protracted refugee. Since the beginning of October, more than 2,500 refugees arrived in Uganda facing food shortages, inadequate shelter and land to grow crops.
The outbreak of violence in the capital Juba last July created a humanitarian crisis in northern Uganda as thousands of South Sudanese sought refugee there. For other refugees who have been living in Uganda for years and up to a decade, their hardships are a manifest of their struggle for self-reliance.
Veronica Simon, 40, from Nimule, arrived in July to the recently-built Pagarinya refugee settlement in Adjumani district, northern Uganda. Inside the camp, the conditions are adverse. "We don't have enough food and blankets," said the mother of six. More than 85 percent of the refugees in this recent influx are women and children. Simon is responsible for her family as her husband "refused to leave," she said. She has lost communication with him.
Nimule is a border town about 50 kilometers from Pagariyna and Simon did not have to walk far with her children into safety. However, she was only able to flee with few household items. "I need cooking utensils," she explained outside her small two-hut compound made from crooked tree branches and tattered UNHCR tarps. "Only the UN can help us," she added. "The community can't help; your sister can't even help you," she said.
With the large influx of refugees in July 2015, relief agencies had to implement stringent food rationing in the refugee settlements. The international humanitarian organizations lack the necessary funds to meet the needs of the more than 200,000 refugees. The World Food Program (WFP) had to cut rations to stretch its resources citing a budget shortfall of about $27 million (24.5 million euros) in the next six months as reasons. Around 200,000 refugees who arrived in Uganda prior to July 2015 also had their rations cut in half.
The WFP gives refugees the option of choosing between food or cash assistance as a way having more flexibility. "Access is the problem," said Lydia Wamala, a communications officer for the WFP in Uganda. "Refugees have low purchasing power."
In the older, more established refugee settlements like Ayilo, which opened in 2014, a small market economy sprouted among refugees and with the local community. Refugees who choose cash assistance receive 28,000 Ugandan Shilling ($8.15) per month.
But since August, refugees have not received cooking oil, a source of grave distress inside the settlements. "We get beans, sorghum, but we don't get oil," said Veronica echoing their frustrations. Some households sell a portion of their food ration inside the camp and buy commodities they are lacking, such as cooking oil, vegetables, and fuel. "Food insecurity is one of the main reasons people flee," explained Wamala. This is an important factor that persuades some refugees to return to South Sudan.
South Sudan joins the list of countries that have produced over one million refugees, along with Syria, Somalia and Afghanistan. Uganda, its southern neighbor, has historically welcomed South Sudanese fleeing war throughout the decades. For refugees who have been in Uganda longer, time and the country's progressive refugee policy has granted them some opportunities to start their own businesses and aim towards self-reliance.
Wojia James, 51, from Central Equatoria State, fled to Uganda in 1989 when he was twenty years old. He ran away from the violence brought by Sudan's civil war. James spent two years living in a transit centre in Uganda and two more years inside a refugee settlement before he could start making a living on his own. "I was surviving from food rations," Wojia explained from his small grocery shop in Adjumani town.
At the beginning, James rode a bicycle from town to town to sell firewood and charcoal, through which he managed to have capital to start a business. As the years went by, Wojia's small business grew. He earned enough money to rent a space in the market and move out of the refugee camp. He is now a Ugandan citizen.
Yom Riak, 42, from Jonglei State, is also a businesswoman. She owns a small shop inside Ayilo refugee camp to support her six children. She sells okra, sugar, peanuts, oil, among commodities that refugees don't receive as part of their food rations.
Riak arrived in 2014 when a civil war broke out between forces loyal to President Salva Kirr and those supporting former vice president, Riek Machar. Riak began her business by selling scented wood. Three years later, she began earning about 20,000 Ugandan Shilling ($5.82) a month from her business.
"It is not enough to feed the children," she explained in the dark confines of her small shop. While some international organizations like the Lutheran World Foundation provide business support in the form of micro-loans and vocational training, most refugee business owners have a hard time building the capital to invest and expand. Riak's income manages to cover extra expenditures, such as medical expanses and baby formula. But it is not enough to save and invest.
Back in Pagarinya refugee settlement, Veronica sits behind her sawing machine. She is trying to earn some money as a tailor but a few months after arriving, her shop is still empty. Her finished products lay in piles on her sides.
"I want our future leaders to avoid persecution and will stay here to give life to my children," she said. "Unless peace comes [in South Sudan], I will not go back."
Reporting for this story was made possible by a fellowship from the International Women’s Media Foundation African Great Lakes Reporting Initiative.