(Kampala) April 18, 2016 — As many countries in the western world close their doors and increase restrictions on refugees, one unsuspecting nation has had an open door policy toward refugees for decades.
Uganda currently welcomes more than half a million refugees — not only allowing them to seek refuge and carry asylum documents but also encouraging them to integrate by allowing them to work, grow crops and move freely throughout the country.
“Here in East Africa, Uganda has shown outstanding concern for welcoming refugees, enabling them to rebuild their lives in security and to sense the dignity which comes from earning one’s livelihood through honest labor,” said Pope Francis during his recent visit to Uganda in late 2015.
In fact, 86 percent of refugees reside in developing countries like Uganda, but very few allow them the same liberty to thrive. The integration method employed by Uganda, for the most part, has proven a dignified and effective refugee response.
According to a 2014 study by Oxford University, 78 percent of urban refugees in Kampala receive no international aid and are able to provide for themselves, with many owning businesses that employ both refugees and Ugandans.
Uganda has been able to maximize the talents of refugees rather than labelling them as “burdensome” as many countries do. Such integration policy is a tangible and positive example of social inclusion into the local economy whereby everyone wins.
The Oxford study found that selling clothes or textiles, tailoring, hairdressing and working in restaurants were among the main types of employment for refugees in Ugandan urban areas.
Thus, Jesuit Refugee Service in the nation’s capital, Kampala, helps refugees access these markets by offering vocational training courses in English language, business management, fashion and design, hairdressing, carpentry, arts and crafts, and catering.
Hundreds of refugees have started their life anew in Uganda through attending these classes. After graduating, some have managed to secure small business loans used to start their own businesses. Others have found employment in Ugandan businesses.
Jeannette Chimondo is one of the many refugees who started her own textile business after receiving training from JRS.
“At first, after arriving, I thought I made a mistake in coming here. We were living in difficult conditions, and my children were suffering, but, I had some background in accounting and I knew I could start something if I had the capital. I completed the JRS business-training course and learned important lessons in customer care.
“I saw there was a lot of demand for textiles in Uganda and felt this would be a smart sector to enter into. I received two interest-free loans from JRS, which allowed me to start and then grow my own business,” said Jeannette.
Like any other business owner, Jeannette relies on local networks to grow her business.
Sometimes she gets her fabrics from her contacts in the Democratic Republic of Congo, while other times she buys them wholesale from Chinese import suppliers in Kampala. She shares a shop with 10 other business owners in Kampala’s city centre to cut costs on rent. Integrating into the host community was an essential piece to her sustainable business model.
When asked for her advice for other refugees with similar aspirations, Jeannette confidently said:
“When you become a refugee, your life will never be the same again, but being a refugee doesn’t mean you’ve reached the end of your life or even the end of the road. If you are suffering, please continue your endeavors to do your best and look for anything you can set your mind to.”
In order to thrive in cities, urban refugees must be versatile and creative. Musa Cirhuza, a 28-year-old Congolese refugee, used to sell goods in a market in Goma. He never thought he would become a carpenter until enrolling in the JRS carpentry class.
“I’ve learned that as a refugee you must be good at a variety of different tasks. I decided to take the challenge of being a carpenter, and through that, I’ve become a more patient and creative person. I’m more able to adapt to difficult circumstances,” said Musa.
These circumstances are often ripe with challenges – securing a safe place to sleep and food to fill is often a daily struggle for many, but the hope of a better future that comes with learning a new skill fills refugees like Musa with a positive outlook.
“Yes I am a refugee and I struggle to survive. I may look normal, but I have constant worries running through my head. However, this doesn’t mean my hands and my feet are cut off. I am able to be somebody just like anyone else. I can still persevere. As far as I’m concerned, my future is bright.”
by Angela Wells, JRS Eastern Africa Communications Officer