Refugee turns host and protector for displaced South Sudanese

Telling the Human Story, 30 January 2014

© UNHCR/K.McKinsey
Ethiopian refugee Mengistu Okuch cleans his car, which he used in December 2013 to rescue his uncle and 15 other members of the family – all of them South Sudanese citizens –- as they fled violence in their own country. He brought them to stay with his small family. They share their meagre rations with their guests.

GOROM SETTLEMENT, South Sudan, January 29 (UNHCR) It's not every family that could take 16 guests into their home on the spur of the moment. But that's just what Ethiopian refugee Mengistu did when his uncle a South Sudanese citizen was displaced by the violence sweeping this country.

Mengistu, 33, who sought refuge in South Sudan in 2006, got a call last month from his uncle, Akway, saying he, his two wives and 13 children had fled their hometown of Bor on foot and had already been walking for more than two days. Government forces now say they have recaptured Bor from the opposition, and television footage shows the city razed to the ground.

But Akway, 48, a nurse in a hospital operating theatre, did not stick around for the battle. As soon as violence erupted across South Sudan in mid-December, he grabbed his family and ran.

"We lived in the best place, but we ran out," he says in English. "I left everything. These clothes, I got from somebody," he says, pointing to the gray suit he's now wearing in this refugee settlement. Along the road, his wives fed the children only broken biscuits that others had dropped in the dirt as they also fled.

As a result, the children, ranging in age from three years to 20, developed diarrhoea, which he cured with roots plucked from the roadside, using traditional medicine as well as his medical training. The journey from Bor to Juba is more than 200 kilometres. With gunfire all around, his children crying, and his wives reproaching him, he finally reached Mengistu on the phone after at least two nights spent in the open.

Mengistu is a driver and unusually for a refugee in this part of the world owns a four-wheel drive vehicle. It was a present from a man whose life had been saved by Mengistu's late father.

So he was able to drive along the road until he met his uncle, Akway, cram the entire family into the car, and bring them back to the humble compound he shares with his wife and two children in Gorom, a settlement for 2,400 Ethiopian refugees some 25 kilometres west of South Sudan's capital, Juba. Since fighting broke out across the country, some 500 South Sudanese have also sought sanctuary here.

Recalling the evening he brought his uncle's large family home, Mengistu says: "When they arrived they looked scared but we told them, 'let us believe in God, because our God is with us'."

Mengistu's family is happily sharing its food rations with all his guests. "The problem is we don't have enough food," he says. "They have stayed here for a week now. This week we have shared the food and now it got finished. I don't know what am going to do."

UN refugee agency community services officers visited the family recently to see what they needed to continue being good hosts and to check on the welfare of all the refugees as well as the South Sudanese who have sought safety here.

"Based on the reports we have, they finish the food they have before the end of the month because they have been sharing and assisting these new arrivals," says Joyce Nduru, UNHCR's community services officer.

Mengistu does see the irony of refugees giving sanctuary to citizens of the very country that is protecting him and his fellow Ethiopians. But he says he could hardly turn his back on his South Sudanese relatives.

"When they came here, we didn't chase them out," Mengistu says. "We accepted them, because we are one. What happened to them is something that also happened to us."

By Kitty McKinsey in Gorom Settlement, South Sudan

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