“You are welcome here. You are safe.
We are here to help you.”
Travelling with UNHCR to Uganda’s northern border, actress Kristin Davis witnessed the arrival of truckloads of exhausted refugees from South Sudan. They are some of the 551,000 South Sudanese who have fled the most recent conflict to engulf their country. More than 155,000 of them have sought refuge in Uganda.
First to emerge out of the dust clouds is a small minibus. It stops beside us and an ancient looking man unfolds himself from the vehicle, looking dazed. It is swelteringly hot and he is drenched in sweat. His daughter and her tiny baby are with him and they too look lost and weary. In their confused state they seek out the shade of a building while I run to get them water. But I can’t stay with them. An old woman who appears to be blind needs helping out of the van with her one small bag. She is followed by a young couple with a baby who has terrible sores on his legs. The mother is rightly worried and anxious. The baby needs a doctor. A call is made. But there are more in the van that need attention too.
Then a huge UNHCR truck arrives from the border carrying vulnerable, worn, traumatised human cargo. This one carries 55 more frightened souls escaping the violence in their country. The door slides open and through the gap people start jumping to the ground. The majority are women and children.
It is overwhelming to see this outpouring of human beings, many of whom are being made refugees for the third or even fourth time in their lives. I wonder aloud what I should do and the UNHCR staff say “Welcome them!” I move forward and start lifting children out of the truck, supporting mothers as they climb to the ground. Everyone is covered in dust, everyone is bone thin, everyone is dazed. Hardly anyone has any bags or belongings. They have fled wearing only their clothes and they have avoided the gunfire on the roads by hiding in the bush and surviving on berries and leaves for days as they journeyed to the border.
I tell them “You are welcome here. You are safe now. We are here to help you”. They are simple words but the reality of their meaning is profound and I feel a responsibility and privilege in saying them.
I think we have helped the final few out into the blazing sunshine when I hear crying coming from the deepest corner of the truck. Three tiny babies are still cloaked in the darkness with their mothers. I hold each precious baby as each mother gathers the few belongings they have and clamber down to me with the support of others.
We show our tired, subdued new arrivals to a shaded area where they can rest as the registration process gets under way. Camp staff bring large water jugs for everyone. And they began to cook a meal that the entire camp will share.
I am witnessing the joy and sorrow of a family reunion unfolding before me in a camp so far from the place they call home.
Word travels quickly around the camp that the trucks have brought new arrivals and anxious relatives gather to see if family members and friends are amongst the group.
I’m worried about one teenage boy who speaks English. He doesn’t smile, and won’t sit down in the shade preferring to pace clutching the straps of his small backpack. But suddenly his face is lighting up as a woman emerges from one of the camp tents. She is his auntie and I am witnessing the joy and sorrow of a family reunion unfolding before me in a camp so far from the place they call home.
[These refugees] will benefit from a generous (in spirit, attitude and support) Ugandan government policy towards refugees. Every refugee is registered in Uganda and is free to move around the country, free to work, and they are even given a small plot of land to live on and farm. Ugandans work and play alongside the South Sudanese in peace and cooperation. The Chairman of the South Sudanese Community Group, Maryok Wilson told us “I carried my wife and my children to get here and now we live amongst the Ugandan people like brothers.”
“I carried my wife and my children to get here and now we live amongst the Ugandan people like brothers.”
At a time when there is so much misunderstanding, mistrust, ill-will, cynicism and prejudice towards refugees in so many parts of the world it is a very great thing to hear comments such as this and to see a government and host community being so welcoming. But Uganda is not a rich country and it is unfair for us to imagine or expect that it can cope with such large influxes of refugees without the support of the international community. Not just our governments but us, as individuals too. The current funding gap for the South Sudan refugee crisis is 90%. The needs of these people who have lost everything is huge, and it is urgent. Acute, severe childhood malnutrition is rising as the conflict stretches on, and people need the absolute basics in order to simply survive: tents, soap, pots and pans, blankets, food, water.
I bow to the mothers who have shown such determination and strength in carrying their children on their backs and in their arms for days to get them to safety; and I wonder at what the future holds for those newborn babies who have yet to understand anything of the world they have been born into.
The people I have met are ordinary people who have shown extraordinary resilience. And it is the same with refugees the world over. Despite losing so much, despite having their lives reset to zero, they still want to achieve — for their families, for their community, for their country. It seems to me that the very least that each one of us can give to refugees across the world — but particularly those in our own schools, in our own communities, in our own countries — is the promise of honouring these words:
“You are welcome here. You are safe now. We are here to help you.”
Kristin Davis is a UNHCR High Profile Supporter. She visited refugee camps in Uganda ahead of World Refugee Day 2015. World Refugee Day is a time to celebrate the courage and resilience of displaced people around the world.