The Mothers I Met in Uganda
The world's fastest growing refugee crisis — thousands of families fleeing conflict and famine in South Sudan streaming across the border into Uganda — most are mothers and children. In March, UNICEF USA's Anjulee Alvares-Cinque visited Uganda's Yumbe district for a first-hand look at the crisis. Here she reflects on the mothers she met and their struggle to provide a future for their children.
Knowing about a crisis and seeing it in person are very different things. I was stunned when we arrived at the refugee reception center in northwest Uganda. So many families, children, and mothers. We often thank our own mothers for all that they do. I am struck by these women and what they have gone through for their children.
They had finally found safety, but their journeys were unimaginable. Because of the civil war in South Sudan, it’s often too dangerous to travel by road into Uganda. Refugees are instead coming through the bush, sometimes extending their trips by days in doing so.
"I walked two days." "We walked three days with nothing to eat." Those were the reoccurring stories we heard. Once the refugees manage to cross the border into Uganda, they come to checkpoints where they wait until they are picked up by buses and taken to reception centers.
They arrive with nothing more than what they’ve carried on their backs. It should be chaos, but at times there’s a startling sense of calm and community. Mothers caring for their children, having risked everything to give their kids a chance at a safer and happier future. They are always the focus. It truly is children first.
All the new arrivals are taken through the health clinic where many children are identified as malnourished. As we went from settlement to settlement, I saw mothers feeding their children ready-to-use therapeutic food, which can bring a severely malnourished child back to health in just a few weeks. These mothers were so full of hope and joy seeing their children recovering, and becoming healthy again.
I saw women gathering wood, building houses, tending gardens. They're rebuilding their lives from seemingly nothing. Many of them hope to return to South Sudan, but in the absence of that possibility, they simply want to build a life for their children. It’s both humbling and inspiring.
At the Early Childhood Development Center in Bidi Bidi Refugee Settlement, I was reminded that children are children everywhere. I was greeted by the sound of a few hundred children singing as they learned their colors and numbers in English. They are so excited to be in school and to have a safe place to play. There is enterprise everywhere. A soccer ball can be created from nothing: plastic, cloth, rope. I was continually struck by the resourcefulness. Everything is something. Nothing goes to waste. The mothers are creating new lives for themselves in Uganda and so are their children.
I can't imagine what they've experienced in South Sudan, what they've seen, what their children have seen. At the settlement there are special support groups for parents — mostly mothers — to help them overcome the trauma of what they've witnessed. You hear powerful reunification stories of mothers taking in children who've lost their families along the way. Their hope and energy are remarkable. I am thinking of these mothers today and reflecting on their strength and resilience as they forge better futures for their children.
All photographs by Jiro Ose for UNICEF USA.