I recently stood on a muddy road in northern Uganda watching hundreds of South Sudanese refugees dance past. They swayed, bent at the waist, raised their arms. Many sang. Their happiness was contagious, and I couldn’t help smiling back. The reason for their joy: They were about to graduate from vocational training in a refugee settlement area called Bidi Bidi.
What a jarring contrast between that memory and what is happening in my own country: immigrants dying while trying to reach safety, and thousands of children held without their parents in overcrowded facilities short of food and bathrooms, as government lawyers argue that “safe and sanitary” conditions are difficult to provide or are not the government’s responsibility. The United States acknowledges that the migrants need better care but claims it’s impossible to keep up with the crush of arrivals at the southern border. The White House blames Congress. Some members of Congress are outraged by what they call inhumane detention policies.
Accommodating refugees can be difficult, especially in emergency conditions. But around the world, governments, multilateral organizations and aid groups encounter the same challenges that U.S. officials see at the Mexican border — and they surmount them without creating their own humanitarian crises. In many cases, including at Bidi Bidi, the home to 234,000 refugees and where I currently work, Washington is helping to pay for largely successful programs. Why can’t American officials do this at home?
Uganda is one of the poorest countries in the world. It suffers from trans-generational poverty, and its recent history includes a protracted civil war and a devastating AIDS epidemic. Yet the country currently accommodates about 1.2 million refugees in a dozen settlements. Most have fled militia violence in neighboring South Sudan and Congo — the same sort of conditions that drive refugees from El Salvador and Honduras, where a culture of drug trafficking, corruption and lawlessness permits gangs to conscript children and punish people by killing their families.
I frequently witness the arrival in Uganda of these refugees, 80 percent of whom are women and children. (Women and children make up the majority of asylum seekers at the U.S. border, too.) I see exhausted mothers carrying all their household belongings on their backs or their heads in tidy bundles. Some also carry memories of their husbands murdered in front of their eyes, or their homes and crops burned. Some were raped. It’s not uncommon for them to have walked barefoot for days through hot or muddy barren lands.
The number of refugees coming into the country began to soar about three years ago. Unlike the United States, Uganda is prepared. The very first thing that happens when refugees arrive here: Workers present them with soap, water, containers for carrying and storing their things, blankets, sleeping mats and high-energy biscuits — the sorts of things denied in the American facilities. The families are then registered and assigned to a living area.
To start, newcomers are given supplies to build temporary shelters. Many then go on to construct traditional mud huts with thatched roofs, and the most vulnerable — including family groups headed by children — receive support to build more substantial homes. Schools, latrines and other structures are erected as quickly as possible. There are always gaps in services, sometimes significant ones, in Uganda and other crisis areas globally. But settlements here are still well-functioning villages, nearly indistinguishable from the existing towns where Ugandans live.
Humanitarian nonprofits such as my employer, Catholic Relief Services (CRS), work with the Ugandan and local governments and other groups to provide a range of integrated services. CRS recently completed water, hygiene and sanitation improvements, including a water system at Bidi Bidi serving 4,700 refugee families. We trained 6,000 farmers to better market their crops, grown on their own small plots. We’re also building five schools for nearly 10,000 refugee children.
What’s striking is that the U.S. government funded most of those projects and plays a significant role in settling refugees throughout the world. Various U.S. agencies budgeted $132 million so far this fiscal year for programs in Uganda, much of that for refugee work. American support is one of the main reasons refugees are received with open arms in Uganda.
Short-term settlement is only part of the services provided. The long-range goal is to prepare refugees eventually to return home and to improve their lives. The happy marchers I watched attend graduation were part of a class of 1,400 who had recently learned various trades in the settlement through U.S.-funded programming. Most had never finished elementary school, yet they had learned to become carpenters, seamstresses, caterers, motorcycle mechanics and more.
One of the things that makes this all work in Uganda is the political will to receive and resettle refugees — out of empathy and a sense that their arrival will help the Ugandan economy.
That economy is smaller than New Hampshire’s, with a gross domestic product of $26 billion compared with the $21 trillion of the United States. If one of the poorest countries in the world — with help from the United States — can shelter more than 1 million refugees, educate their children and teach parents a trade, why can’t the United States at least provide safe temporary facilities for those fleeing horrors in Central America?
I know from personal experience the ability of the U.S. government to extend a welcoming hand. In 1980, my parents fled Cuba in the Mariel boatlift. I was 5 years old. I vividly remember landing in Key West, stepping ashore. A U.S. Coast Guard officer handed me an apple. Then, my family and other refugees were shown to an airplane hangar where we were supplied with fresh clothes, the chance to shower and beds to rest. Treating refugees with dignity just isn’t that difficult.
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