#BearsOnStairs: How your kid’s teddy can help South Sudan’s desperate child refugees

by Tim Pilkington | World Vision UK
Wednesday, 26 July 2017 14:19 GMT

In this undated photo three South Sudanese refugee boys pose for a photo in Imvepi refugee settlement, Uganda. World Vision/Henry Makiwa

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

There is a devastating human tragedy unfolding in East Africa, where a wave of refugees is on the move, fleeing brutal conflict in South Sudan. Almost one million people have escaped into neighbouring Uganda, largely hidden from the eyes of the world. As always with crises like these, children suffer the most.

Hundreds of thousands of scared children have made the long, dangerous journey between countries - going days, or even weeks, without food or shelter. Many hide in the bush during the day, moving at night to avoid being spotted and killed by fighting parties. Too often, children make this journey alone. They tell harrowing stories of how their parents were killed, sometimes in front of them.

The fortunate ones find havens of safety in Uganda. Children crossing Uganda’s borders are not greeted with high fences, barbed wire and tear gas. It makes a stark contrast to shocking images of refugees trying to get through Europe.

Tired and traumatised refugees find a welcoming atmosphere, food and a new start in Uganda. The country is home to the world’s biggest refugee settlements. The two biggest - Bidi Bidi and Imvepi in Northern Uganda - shelter almost 400,000 refugees from South Sudan.

In these settlements, refugees are given a plot of land and food rations, and access to health facilities, schools and other public services. Couples who get married are given an extra helping hand. It puts the response of the West to shame.

Here, in the UK, our government has come under increasing pressure for its lacklustre commitment to the welfare of refugees and asylum seekers. So far this year the UK has not taken in any refugees under the Dubbs scheme, which required the government to support unaccompanied child refugees.

This week the government made a new commitment to accept an extra 3000 refugee children and families from African and the Middle East. This is welcome, but it’s a pale echo of the generous, open-borders approach taken by Uganda.

Meanwhile, the exodus of South Sudanese refugees continues unabated. Official figures show around 2000 cross into Uganda every day. Each has their own story of terror.

Take 16 year old Nadal. One day, he and his four siblings returned from school in South Sudan’s capital Juba to find their home bombed. Their parents were inside. There was no hope they were still alive.

Afraid more bombs would come, Nadal took his brothers and sisters and fled. “People were running away, so we ran with them,” he says. They had no time to salvage any belongings – they ran with only the clothes on their backs.

They kept going for three weeks. Soon the legs of Nadal’s sisters became so swollen they could no longer walk. Nadal had to take turns carrying them on his shoulders.

“There was no way I could leave my siblings, it made me want to keep us all together,” he says. Eventually they reached Uganda, and now live at the Imvepi refugee settlement, where World Vision has found a foster family to take care of them.

Our workers in Uganda’s mass refugee settlements have found foster families to care for more than 3,500 unaccompanied children like Nadal and his siblings. We unite children who are alone, sick or separated from their parents with a family who are able to look after them. We are humbled by the generosity of refugees who have lost all their material possessions but still have their love to give.

Finding foster families is just one aspect of our work in the settlements. We also provide safe, friendly spaces for children to help them recover from their traumatic experiences of abuse and violence. Of ambushes and gunfire.  Of murdered parents and lost siblings.

So far we have helped more than 40,000 children. We find specialist therapeutic support for those suffering mental health consequences from severe trauma. We know these children will carry the physical, mental and emotional scars of this trauma for a long time. We do what we can to help.

East Africa may seem a world away from our lives. Yet it is part of the world we all live in. Children there suffer as our own children would. 

Tomorrow, World Vision UK will place 700 teddy bears on the steps of London’s St Paul’s Cathedral, for the children who have fled into Uganda just over the last week. You can help raise awareness by taking a photo of your teddy bear and posting on social media with the hashtag #BearsOnStairs

Please join us, and show the refugee children in Uganda that they’re no longer alone.