"Do-it-yourself" initiative gives Sudanese refugees a leg up
MADI OKOLLO, Uganda, Feb. 12 (UNHCR) - Forced to flee when civil war came to their doorsteps in 1992, thousands of Sudanese refugees initially found shelter and rebuilt their lives in northern Uganda's Achol-Pii settlement. But the tranquil exile was not to last.
A marauding rebel group attacked their camp 10 years later. Some refugees were killed and others were abducted. The remaining exiles were forced to spend nearly a year in temporary transit settlements before being settled in a new camp near the shores of Lake Albert.
But restarting their lives has become a way of life for the more than 6,500 refugees living at Madi Okollo. With the help of a pioneering Ugandan government/UN refugee agency Self Reliance Strategy (SRS) initiative, they picked up the pieces and established a self-supporting exile community.
The recent upheaval could be seen as non-stop bad luck, but for these refugees, it may well be a good exercise for the future, with peace talks between the Sudanese government and southern rebel groups set to reopen in neighbouring Kenya's lakeside town of Naivasha next week.
For the 223,000 Sudanese refugees living in Uganda, the ability to quickly rebuild lives and establish working communities will be an important asset in making their dream of returning home a success, a return that Maki Okollo's residents, so well-honed in getting re-established, will be able to play an important role.
In order to help Madi Okollo's residents quickly get back on their feet, UNHCR, working hand-in-hand with the refugees, the Uganda government and several partner agencies, has built roads, housing and medical facilities and drilled wells in an area where just over a year ago there was nothing but scrub land and dust devils.
The success of the refugees in rebuilding their lives can be greatly attributed to the SRS initiative. The programme was formulated over the last 10 years by the government and UNHCR to ensure that refugees, particularly those from Sudan, can support themselves during their time in exile.
The strategy is a simple one: give refugees access to land in and around local communities and encourage them to "do-it-themselves." As they become self-supporting, food rations can be gradually reduced.
Several refugee communities in Uganda are already 100 percent self-sufficient in regards to their food aid needs, and are even selling their excess production in adjacent host communities. Through various programmes, refugee farmers in SRS settlements are encouraged to increase their harvests through more efficient ways of crop production. This know-how is passed on to nationals living in an area.
During a visit to Madi Okollo this week, UNHCR's Director of International Protection Erika Feller saw that in their short time in the camp, the refugees had gone to great lengths to reduce their dependence on outside aid.
"In comparison to many of the refugee settlements I have seen, this one is in excellent shape for such a short time in operation," Feller said.
Health facilities, schools and other infrastructure built by UNHCR are shared by both refugees and local Ugandans. Joint education programmes give refugees and nationals the skills to become teachers and medical practitioners. Ultimately, when the refugees return home, the residents of settlements where the SRS initiative has been implemented will use the skills to boost their own communities.
"It's a win-win partnership," said Adi Gerstl a programme coordinator with DED (Deutsche Entwicklungsdienst, German Development Service) who is overseeing the building of a primary school in the settlement. "Using an integrated approach with refugees, government and NGOs, we build a community together. When it is time for the refugees to go home they have acquired the skills to restart their lives, and the refugee hosting district has realised its own development objectives."
The SRS initiative, said Feller, provides a vital looking-glass into the problems that Sudanese refugees might face when they return to their homeland.
"After such a long time in Uganda, the refugees will have the same situation returning to Sudan with land acquisition, problems with integration into local populations, and vying for social services that they faced when they came to Madi Okollo," Feller said. "SRS can be used as a good example for them to follow when going home - an unsung good example of mutual development and self reliance."
Meanwhile in Madi Okollo, the Sudanese have just completed their second harvest since being relocated to the site. However, most eyes are fixed on events in Sudan, some 150 kilometres to the north.
"It is hard to start a new life," said a 25-year-old man who has been a refugee in Uganda for 10 years. "But we are Sudanese, and we must go home some day. I have the skills to rebuild, and when I am given the word that it is safe to return to Sudan, I will go immediately."