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Two Sisters’ Journey Embodies Plight of Young Refugees Fleeing Alone

When Sarah and Jane fled South Sudan, they joined the thousands of unaccompanied minors living in Uganda’s refugee camps. Organizations help kids like them feel safe by providing money, therapy and even foster families, but their loss is harder to escape.

Written by Jennifer Huxta Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Huxta iwmf nyumanzi
After armed men attacked their school in Kerepi, South Sudan, Sarah, left, and her sister, Jane, walked for two days before reaching a transit refugee camp in Uganda. Jennifer Huxta

ADJUMANI, Uganda – Sisters Sarah, 16, and Jane, 17, sat with their arms linked under one of the few trees in the austere landscape surrounding Nyumanzi Refugee Transit Center. They were among 38,000 South Sudanese – most of them women and children – who had fled to neighboring Uganda during the escalation of violence in July. They were in school in Kerepi, Eastern Equatoria State, when armed men attacked their school. “They [were] shooting people; many people died. They even shot our watchman,” Jane said. “We were playing [in the football field] and then they started to shoot. We ran to the bush. We escaped from there. At night. We reached Nimule after two days.”

The girls had only each other. Their father, a soldier with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, disappeared six years ago, and their mother died in July after a long illness. Sarah and Jane are among approximately 1,500 unaccompanied South Sudanese children who now live in the refugee settlements in Northern Uganda. Even in a community of refugees, their situation is particularly precarious. “In the settlements, [unaccompanied] girls are prone to risks such as forced marriage, early marriage, physical abuse, child neglect, defilement, child labor and exploitation, which contributes to low enrollment of the girls in school,” said Anne Anzoo, the child protection officer in Adjumani for the Lutheran World Federation(LWF), an international cooperative of Lutheran churches.

Sarah and Jane waiting for food rations at the Nyumanzi Refugee Transit Center near Adjumani, Uganda. (Jennifer Huxta)

Sarah and Jane waiting for food rations at the Nyumanzi Refugee Transit Center near Adjumani, Uganda. (Jennifer Huxta)

Every day, Anzoo and other child protection officers work to place unaccompanied young refugees with foster families who also live in Uganda’s refugee camps. LWF, for instance, trains potential foster families in child rights and protection. “We talk with them about parenting and what it means to foster a child,” Anzoo said. The organization’s training manual outlines the importance of physical protection as well as “guidance, love and attention, education, and respect.” And LWF gives material support – blankets, mattresses, clothing, supplies to build a shelter – as well as a one-time, unconditional cash grant of 150,000 Ugandan shillings ($45), to help the families provide create a safe environment where foster children can thrive.

Psychosocial counseling is also available, to help the child adjust to living with a new family and assist parents with any challenges involved in fostering a child. “We have counselors on the ground to support the families,” Anzoo said. “But children with severe mental cases are referred to TPO [Transcultural Psychosocial Organization],” which partners with civil society groups and governments to provide refugees help with their mental and economic well-being. LWF also tries to trace the families of unaccompanied minors so they can eventually be reunited.

For Sarah and Jane, simply landing in the refugee camp was a respite from the chaos of their flight from South Sudan. After the two fled their village in July, they walked for two full days from Kerepi to Nimule, on the border with Uganda. “We traveled with many people; some lost their property. By the time I reached Nimule, I’m not feeling good, because I’m remembering what I left. I didn’t bring anything,” said Sarah. “My legs, they became so swollen and painful because that place is far.” The sisters were registered at Nimule and transferred to Nyumanzi Refugee Transit Center in Adjumani, Uganda.

At the transit center, the sisters slept on the cement floor of a temporary shelter. “Life here is very difficult,” Sarah said. “We eat only beans. We don’t have a proper place to sleep. We sleep on the floor. We don’t have a mat.”

People lining up at the food distribution center at Nyumanzi transit center. Before the center was closed on November 3, it housed over 3,450 refugees, who have now been moved to nearby settlements. (Jennifer Huxta)

People lining up at the food distribution center at Nyumanzi transit center. Before the center was closed on November 3, it housed over 3,450 refugees, who have now been moved to nearby settlements. (Jennifer Huxta)

Compared to other countries neighboring South Sudan, Uganda is welcoming and generous to refugees. The government houses them in settlements where they can plant crops to supplement their food rations. Refugees also get access to employment and freedom of movement, in order to integrate with the local population.

Still, Sarah and Jane feel the need to look out for each other. “My daily life?… I have nothing to do,” Sarah said. “In the morning, I ask God to protect me because I have nobody to take care of me now. I’m feeling bad because I lost my parents. Who is going to help us? Nobody.”

Since the escalation of violence in South Sudan in July, around 1,500 unaccompanied South Sudanese children have arrived at the refugee camps in northern Uganda. (Jennifer Huxta)

Since the escalation of violence in South Sudan in July, around 1,500 unaccompanied South Sudanese children have arrived at the refugee camps in northern Uganda. (Jennifer Huxta)

According to Albert Alumgbi, assistant settlement commander of Uganda’s Office of the Prime Minister, Nyumanzi Transit Center was closed on November 3 and more than 3,000 refugees, including Sarah and Jane, were transferred to a settlement in nearby Agojo. Another 335 were sent to one in Baratuku. Geremy Yadessa, team leader for LWF in northern Uganda, said that now Sarah and Jane are in Agojo, even if they aren’t matched with a foster family, they will be able to get direct financial support as well as basic provisions and shelter. LWF will even pay their school fees. Before they moved to the new settlement, the sisters were already looking forward to being back in school.

“I want to be a nurse,” Sarah said.

“Even me too,” Jane replied.

This article was reported with the support of an African Great Lakes Reporting Initiative fellowship from the International Women’s Media Foundation.

The names of some of the people in this article have been changed to protect their identities.

This story originally appeared on Women & Girls Hub

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