Pastor Richard’s flight

By Coco McCabe
Pastor Richard talks with visitors at the Imvepi refugee settlement in Uganda Photo: Coco McCabe/Oxfam

Uganda is now sheltering more than one million South Sudanese refugees. For many families, the decision to leave home for a life of uncertainty is not made lightly. And the journey—often on foot—can be full of danger. 

At the Imvepi refugee settlement in Uganda, rows of benches line the dark earth in the shade of a lulu tree just beginning to bristle with fruit. This is the outdoor church of Pastor Richard, 34, and the benches, assembled from rough logs cradled low to the ground, speak volumes about the make-do lives of more than 119,000 people now sheltering at Imvepi.

They fled from South Sudan, a country devastated by civil war and hunger, where the price of a cup of beans has skyrocketed more than tenfold, and where people are running from their homes with only the few things they can carry. They are among the million South Sudanese refugees who have now crossed the border seeking security in Uganda, where a liberal refugee policy makes it more welcoming than many other places: It now hosts more refugees than any other African nation.

And they are just some of 22.5 million refugees seeking safety globally-the highest number since the aftermath of World War II, and part of a broad displacement crisis that Oxfam is tackling on many fronts.

“Uganda is a peaceful country,” explained a local man named John who was looking for work at Imvepi. “Any person, regardless of their color, their tribe, and so on, really are welcome.”

Testament to that is the explosive growth of Bidibidi a few miles from Imvepi. In just months, between August and November of 2016, Bidibidi grew to become the largest refugee settlement in the world with 272,000 people. Across four refugee settlements in Uganda, Oxfam and its local partners are reaching more than 283,000 people with help that includes clean drinking water, sanitation services, hygiene promotion, and some skills training to help people earn an income.

Hard decisions

For Richard, the decision to uproot his family and head to Uganda was not easy. Who would readily trade home for a life of dependence and uncertainty in a country that is not your own? What would you do for work there? How would your family get enough to eat? Where would your children go to school? All of these questions weigh heavily on South Sudanese–even as they find relief in being free of the fear and violence that filled their days.

Richard resisted the urge to flee when gunshots first sounded. He held on through the arrests of people in his community, through the nighttime killings, and even through the targeting of religious leaders. 

What he couldn’t bear was when his children began to suffer because the only food his family had to eat was sweet potatoes.

“My young girl fell sick and was suffering from anemia seriously,” said Richard, speaking in English. “The elder sister--even the same. In the morning you see their feet are swelling. So in all this, I actually made my decision to move out.”

But that choice meant leaving most of his household good behind. 

Pastor Richard, with his wife on his left, sits in the shade of the open-air church he started at Imvepi. Photo: Coco McCabe/Oxfam

“You know, the Bible says food, dressing, and drink are useless, but life is more important,” said Richard. “I decided to rescue my own life—leave the property that can be got at any time. If God wills, I will gain them back.”

And so began a perilous week of walking from his village toward the border. Besides Richard, there were seven others in his group: his three children, his wife, and three orphans the family was caring for.

“Crossing Juba Road is like entering hell,” he recalled. But the danger of running into conflict wasn’t all he had to worry about: water and food were equal concerns.

“When you see the water we were drinking… green, red, brown, even pink because the wild animals are also drinking from there,” said Richard. After three days their food ran out, leaving them to forage for a wild plant called “lobutoro”—a leaf with a bitter taste.

“This kind of plant gives you energy when you’re hungry,” said Richard. “You have a lot of appetite for eating any kind of food that comes.”

In June, settled safely at Imvepi with his family, Richard had not stopped worrying about food: The previous month, the World Food Programme, $60 million short on funds, cut the grain ration in half for South Sudanese refugees—a terrible blow. 

A hunger for schooling

One of the children Pastor Richard and his wife are caring for, this girl longs to be in school. Photo: Coco McCabe/Oxfam

But a shortage of rations isn’t Richard’s only concern. What gnaws at him just as keenly is the future of his children and the additional orphans now in his care. All told, his household numbers 16.

A teacher himself, he fears the children won’t have access to the education that is so vital to their success. Among his parishioners are several teachers, and they have discussed a plan for offering classes, but they lack teaching materials.

“They’re our future generation,” said Richard of the children. “They’re the leaders of tomorrow.”

Despite all the hardship and uncertainty he and his family—and countless others—have endured, Richard is sure that that tomorrow will be brighter.

“I convince myself biblically that there’s a time for everything. We suffered, but there’s a time we shall also enjoy life,” he said. “We shall get the peace back to South Sudan.”

Millions of people like Richard are on the brink of starvation. Meet a few of the individuals working hard to overcome hunger, and find out how you can help. 

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