• Text size Normal size text | Increase text size by 10% | Increase text size by 20% | Increase text size by 30%

A web of love and solidarity keeps Eritrean refugees afloat in Kampala

News Stories, 11 April 2013

© UNHCR/M.Senelle
Eritrean refugee Lyia Hiele (in striped shirt), and Eritrean asylum seeker Yordanos Heyabu exchange mutual thanks for the support they provide to each other on their way to Kampala's police station, where Yordanos needs to register her presence in the country. The two women are bound by a common story of exile.

KAMPALA, Uganda, April 11 (UNHCR) The way their heads touch when they speak, their silent camaraderie, the ease with which the little boy passes from one pair of arms to the other, Liya and Yordanos look and act like mother and daughter. In fact, they only met five weeks ago.

Outside a government refugee registration office in the Ugandan capital, the two Eritrean women are sitting on wooden benches under a tarpaulin roof in a crowd of patient asylum-seekers. "The best thing Eritrean people do here is help each other," says Liya, looking fondly at her protégé's two-year-old son Noah, who's chasing chickens in the stuffy yard.

"They're with you when you are alive, and also after death," Liya adds. "The last thing they will do, when one of us dies, is collect money to send our bodies back to Eritrea."

Being supported by total strangers is perhaps surprisingly commonplace in a city undergoing intense urbanization and facing a parallel upsurge in the numbers of asylum-seekers and refugees. Peer support from the community has become a vital safety net. This is why Liya came to the registration centre, with Yordanos, Noah and another Eritrean family of four to provide the same support she once received, and to help them navigate administrative procedures.

"In crowded bus stations, people recognize each other by their features," says Maria Mangeni, UNHCR's senior community services assistant in Kampala. "Bus drivers, vendors, any fellow citizens will help them find a relative," she explains. "They are introduced to someone, who introduces them to someone else and soon they have a place to stay."

This is what happened to Liya when she fled Eritrea five years ago with her two youngest children. She said she was persecuted by the government for helping her oldest son avoid forced conscription at the age of 16, two years younger than the law permits. She fled first to Juba in South Sudan, a place she found harsh and unsafe. She has no idea what happened to that boy or the husband she left behind in Eritrea.

"I had absolutely nothing," she recalls of her time in Juba. "Some Eritreans I knew there gathered money to pay the bus fare to Uganda for me and the children; they told me it was a peaceful place, with good schools. Then they called friends to come and welcome me."

Since 2006, Uganda has allowed refugees to live anywhere they want in Kampala, as long as they can support themselves.

"To be allowed to remain in the city, refugees need to prove they can afford to buy food, pay rent and provide an education to their children," says Apollo Kazungu, Uganda's commissioner for refugees.

This also means they get less humanitarian aid than if they choose to live in refugee settlements in other parts of Uganda. And although cities often provide more job opportunities, achieving economic security remains very challenging. Under such circumstances, social networks have become the cornerstone of coping strategies for displaced people.

"All I have right now is what is given to me," Yordanos says in perfect English. "When I arrived, a friend in Kampala gave me Liya's contact, told her I needed a roof. I've been living in Liya's room with Noah ever since."

Liya's second son found a job at an Internet café and is providing for all of them, paying the rent, buying the food and covering his sister's school fees. Yordanos hopes she can soon find work also and repay her neighbour's generosity. In the meantime, she is doing whatever she can in her precarious situation. Her language skills are a great asset in the registration office where she goes around discreetly, offering to act as an interpreter for other Eritrean families.

"Ethiopians and Eritreans, probably because of the barriers of language and the dreadful circumstances they have gone through, tend to struggle more when they arrive," observes UNHCR's Mangeni. "But they very rarely come to us for help. Whenever they do, I'm sure it's because they're between a rock and a hard place. They are that strong, they never give up. Even if they're left with one piece of bread they will share it."

And so, through the harshness of daily survival, Liya finds strength amongst her neighbours. Exchanging another knowing glance with Yordanos, she says quietly in her mother tongue: "Yfetwom, yfetweni. [I love them, they love me.]"

By Melanie Senelle in Kampala, Uganda




UNHCR country pages

A Time Between: Moving on from Internal Displacement in Uganda

This document examines the situation of IDPs in Acholiland in northern Uganda, through the stories of individuals who have lived through conflict and displacement.

Cold, Uncomfortable and Hungry in Calais

For years, migrants and asylum-seekers have flocked to the northern French port of Calais in hopes of crossing the short stretch of sea to find work and a better life in England. This hope drives many to endure squalid, miserable conditions in makeshift camps, lack of food and freezing temperatures. Some stay for months waiting for an opportunity to stow away on a vehicle making the ferry crossing.

Many of the town's temporary inhabitants are fleeing persecution or conflict in countries such as Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iraq, Sudan and Syria. And although these people are entitled to seek asylum in France, the country's lack of accommodation, administrative hurdles and language barrier, compel many to travel on to England where many already have family waiting.

With the arrival of winter, the crisis in Calais intensifies. To help address the problem, French authorities have opened a day centre as well as housing facilities for women and children. UNHCR is concerned with respect to the situation of male migrants who will remain without shelter solutions. Photographer Julien Pebrel recently went to Calais to document their lives in dire sites such as the Vandamme squat and next to the Tioxide factory.

Cold, Uncomfortable and Hungry in Calais

A Refugee Settlement Rises Again in Northern Uganda

Fighting in South Sudan between government troops and rival forces since December has displaced tens of thousands of people, many of whom have sought shelter at temporary transit and reception centres just inside northern Uganda. The UN refugee agency has since early January reopened three former refugee settlements and moved an estimated 50,000 to these sites deeper inside Uganda, where it is easier to provide them with protection and assistance. After being taken by truck to one such settlement, Nyumanzi I, lying some 30 kilometres from the border, the new arrivals are given relief items such as food, blankets, mats and kitchenware as well as a plot of land from the government on which to build a shelter. The settlement has been filling up quickly. UNHCR and partners have been working around the clock to build roads, install water distribution networks and provide access to health care. By early February, homes and small shops had sprung up across the settlement as the South Sudanese got on with their lives while closely monitoring the situation back home in the hope of one day returning.

A Refugee Settlement Rises Again in Northern Uganda

Matiop's First Days as a Refugee in Uganda

After fighting engulfed his hometown of Bor in South Sudan last December, Matiop Atem Angang fled with his extended family of 15 - including his 95-year-old mother, his six children and his sister's family. They left the capital of Jonglei state, one of the areas worst affected by the violence of the last two months. A one-week journey by boat and truck brought them to safety in neighbouring Uganda.

At the border, Matiop's large family was taken to a UNHCR-run transit centre, Dzaipi, in the northern district of Adjumani. But with thousands of South Sudanese refugees arriving every day, the facility quickly became overcrowded. By mid-February, the UN refugee agency had managed to transfer refugees to their own plots of land where they will be able to live until it is safe for them to go home. Uganda is one of very few countries that allow refugees to live like local citizens. These photos follow Matiop through the process of registering as a refugee in Uganda - an experience he shares with some 70,000 of his compatriots.

Matiop's First Days as a Refugee in Uganda

Uganda: A Father's TroublesPlay video

Uganda: A Father's Troubles

Forty-five-year-old Gabriel fled South Sudan with his wife and children to find safety in the UN compound in Bor. But, in April 2014, his wife was killed when an armed mob forced their way in, and now he is a single father to five children, seeking a better life in Uganda.
Uganda: Unique Approach For South SudanesePlay video

Uganda: Unique Approach For South Sudanese

Uganda has taken in thousands of South Sudanese refugees fleeing conflict. The government is helping the new arrivals by giving them land on which to build a shelter.
Uganda: New Camp, New ArrivalsPlay video

Uganda: New Camp, New Arrivals

Recent fighting in eastern Congo has seen thousands of civilians flee to a new camp, Bubukwanga, in neighboring Uganda.