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A story from Uganda: From Refugee To Changemaker

Malish' story from the Bidibidi Refugee Settlement and the Afri-Youth Network

Bidibidi is located in Northern Uganda, near the border of South Sudan. It is the second largest refugee camp in the world and home to a quarter million people.

“When we arrived in Bidibidi in 2016, we were dropped off in a village, in the bush, actually, without much infrastructure, let alone decent living conditions.”, Malish remembers, “It was really hard, especially for those, who had not experienced life as a refugee before”.

It is not possible to cultivate much of the land in Bidibidi as it is too rocky. “You only receive around 30 by 30 meters in total anyways, for you to build your hut, and to cultivate within that area - part of which may be rocky and not arable. So there is no way to produce enough food.”

Malish and his community struggled with this. However, they managed to build up their huts and cultivated as much food as they could. Schools were opened for children and UN agencies put a hospital infrastructure in place. At that time, when first arriving in Bidibidi, most of the children were malnourished as they came from a war zone lacking food. “Luckily, Action Against Hunger, WFP, Concern Worldwide, UNHCR, IRC and other agencies were there to support families with undernourished children. Since that time, the malnutrition rate has steadily declined. Experiencing these high numbers of malnutrition and hunger was devastating.” Families were supported with food rations, including foods like maize grain, beans, oil, and salt. “As time passed, the amount of food was reduced, which posed a new challenge for the refugees. Most of the people in Bidibidi are children, youth, and women. Many of the men had been killed or were still in South Sudan. So many women had to take care of their families and provide for their children by themselves.” Malish explained how part of the food has to be traded in order to get other necessities, such as clothes for the children. Life this way was very hard and led some refugees to return to South Sudan. They wanted to go to their home villages where they could at least cultivate some food instead of keep on living with hunger. Most of them never even made it to their homes.

“What I miss about South Sudan is my beautiful land, my home that I was free in, that I could cultivate my own food, and I miss my house - having a place where I belong. I also miss the job opportunities I could have there. What I love in Uganda is that it is a free country. There is a freedom of expression for refugees and we are free to move around within Uganda, to any place we want. We have a peaceful and safe life here.”

Bidibidi is now slowly transforming into a city. This is possible due to Uganda’s progressive policies, allowing South Sudanese refugees to take on work and move around the country freely. Of course, Malish and his community are dreaming of returning to their home when South Sudan is safe again.

Seizing opportunities

As Bidibidi is not too far away from the South Sudanese border, there are many similarities between the cultures. This also goes for food and recipes. Living in the settlement, the most common food Malish and his community receive is beans.

“There are some host communities around Bidibidi that suffer even more than the refugees. They depend on the refugees sometimes, so they visit the communities to exchange goods or services, for example food for building materials. This shows that we are all the same. We need to support each other.” Some refugees were able to negotiate with the neighbouring communities to receive small pieces of land to grow their own food, commonly maize or cassava. You have to create your own opportunities.

In 2018, WFP offered a training opportunity, the WFP Storytellers programme. “I was one of the youths who were selected for the training to build journalism and social media skills. It seemed simple to me at first, as I was already on social media and I’ve been a storyteller my whole life. My parents died when I was very young, so I told my friends the stories they used to tell, to remember them by. The WFP training offered even more skills to discover and this was how I started to share stories from my community on a daily basis.” The students received smartphones and learnt how to take pictures and short videos with them. Since the training, whenever Malish spots a story worth sharing, he takes a picture, writes a short caption and puts it up on his social media platform.

Malish now shares stories through his own blog Daily Refugee Stories. Many opportunities arose through this new platform: Media houses started following him, BBC contacted him to share positive things about Bidibidi and sent three journalists to the settlement. Together, they collected stories that were later shared by the BBC. A famous Portuguese journalist contacted him who visited Bidibidi with her team and shared his story.

Empowering youths to create lasting change

“There are many youths here, most of them lacking opportunities and even things to do. So I thought that what I do can help other youths, too.” This is how Malish came up with the idea to start his community-based organization, Afri-Youth Network. His goal is to share knowledge and empower youths to be self-reliant. The biggest challenge was to get funding and the support to build his organization. So, he started small, by training the people he had direct access to. Sharing his own storytelling skills with the youths and giving them a platform to share their stories, Malish inspired his community. He collaborated with another organization that came in and provided business training to the group. After the training, they received some funding to open up a small business. With this, they started a phone charging service. Investing in just one person can create such a beautiful ripple effect for a whole community. “My hope is to see the Afri-Youth Network grow bigger, not only within all five zones of the Bidibidi settlement, but also beyond that. I chose the name for a reason - I’m dreaming of expanding this Africa-wide.”

“When I walk around the settlement nowadays, many of the people approach me. They want to share their stories with me. Children approach me because they want me to take their pictures.” Malish’ work has a strong advocacy component as well: the stories he has shared have reached organizations which have responded with donations to the people he talked about on his blog. These go through his organization. “Sometimes the people look at me as if I was the one giving them the donations - but I’m just the carrier, advocating on their behalf. I get these things and I pass them on.”, Malish laughs, “After this, everyone wants to share their stories with me, so they get support as well.”. So far, Malish has been able to support 50 households this way.

“With the Afri-Youth Network, I want to empower youths, I want to see self-reliant young communities. I just want to see the lives of youths changing, that is my biggest dream.”

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