Personal Reflections as we head to Bidi Bidi Refugee Camp by Kristin Kohler

Written By Kristin Kohler Knowing we are going to Uganda to work with South Sudanese refugees, I type into the Google search bar: History of South Sudan and the always reliable Wikipedia article is one or two clicks away. I open the link to a lengthy article, and I quickly discern that the history of South Sudan and its inhabitants, before it gained independence in 2011, is complicated.  It’s lengthy and brutal, it’s….not easy to write about. The complex conditions that precipitated the creation of the world’s largest refugee settlement, Bidi Bidi in Northwest Uganda concern both local and international issues.  My eyes scan the page and phrases jump out in order for my brain to process;

“…at independence, South Sudan was at war with at least seven armed groups… tens of thousands displaced… 14 December 2013… attempted a coup d'état fighting broke out, igniting the South Sudanese Civil War.” [1]

My mind jumps to the book I’m listening to on Audible, What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, by Dave Eggers. Deng is a refugee who, as a young boy, fled in terror from his South Sudan village after it was attacked; his family was either missing or dead. He grew up, fleeing on foot, roughing a camp in Ethiopia where he was shot at, and eventually finding safer but still limited circumstances at a camp in Kenya. Although Deng, now grown, lives in the US. I can’t help but reach for parallels between his journey and the treacherous passage of those now at or entering Bidi Bidi. I recall a particular passage:

“I have watched too many young boys die in the desert, some as if sitting down to sleep… I have seen three boys taken by lions, eaten haphazardly. I watched them lifted from their feet, carried off in the animal’s jaws, and devoured in the high grass close enough that I could hear the wet snapping sounds of the tearing of flesh.”

My conditioned unconscious represses any feelings I have of terror, beyond a small bodily shiver, and I can go on with my reading (listening), my day, my meek attempt to understand the plight of the people we will be working with. Deng will be joining us briefly in Uganda.

A small team from One Light Global is headed to Bidi Bidi next week. I try to fathom a refugee camp the size of a sprawling city. One that has become that size in just over a year’s time. From a small village to a camp with the population of St. Louis. The numbers alone are staggering, and I again have trouble processing; this time the sheer volume and rate of influx to this camp. I jump back to the book and articles to get a sense of the condition many of these refugees are in when arriving at the camp. They are hungry, famished, near starved. I can listen to stories. Few have gone to schools. I can find a NY Times article reporting from South Sudan, with videos. Their sons have been captured by the militia and returned beaten and deaf. But I just can’t. I try and feel, but that same shiver is all that comes out. My body is in defense mode, it doesn’t want to go there. I take a break, go on with my day, cook dinner for my kids, give them a bath… but I am distant, and I can only recall that shiver. I switch on the TV for them. I lay in the darkness in my bedroom on my Tempurpedic, and I sink down just the right amount, just so, as always. My mind is racing to catch up to my unconscious but it’s too late, I can only guess at how I’m feeling in this slow processing of something, of somewhere I have not been or seen or thought about much before; Refugee camps. South Sudan. War. Corruption. Captured boys. Famine. Survivor’s guilt. It bubbles back up to me almost disguised as sorrow. I’m experiencing Survivor’s guilt.  It’s like the flames jumped my house in this Earthly neighborhood wildfire.

I am now - in my head - taking a walk with my girls in our unburned neighborhood. My 3-year old trips and skins her knee and I pick her up, get back to the house for “the spray that doesn’t hurt” and a Band-aid. My mind toggles to a South Sudanese refugee mother and daughter, their journey a far cry from feet and knees on a flat paved sidewalk lined with elm and maple trees, or a golden retriever to stop by and pet. I think of their resilience, and it seems not strong enough a word. Bad-assness seems inappropriate. Maybe if I capitalize the “r”… Resilience, that’s better. They reach Bidi Bidi. Then a line jumps out at me from a Washington Post article.

“In South Sudan, an untold number of women had been sexually abused during the conflict.

My eyes close harder, and I literally give myself a hug. I upgrade to RESILIENCE.  The same article can’t flutter out of my head fast enough before another line jumps at me.

“Many children arrived alone, after their parents were killed.” [2]

In my head, the young girl is now alone walking around Bidi Bidi. She trips and skins her knee. I want to pick her up and hold her. I wonder if they have “spray that doesn’t hurt” at the camp. I hope so. Hope. Hope. Hope jumps at me like it was a guest at my surprise party. Hope. I let it wash over me, and I can sleep.   

I wake up early and realize our small sub-team at One Light will be at Bidi Bidi in just 6 days. I click open a PRI article and read …

“Bidi Bidi, which opened in August 2016… with 285,000 residents, it's now the world’s largest refugee camp - bigger even than the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, which has long held the title and been open since the 1990s.the settlement is preparing for the likelihood that many of its residents will stay for years - or perhaps permanently. In the words of the United Nations’ refugee chief, these refugees are likely in for “a long-term exile.” [3]

Hope, yes! Hope. Hope is essential for the long haul, the long-term exile, for the camp to transition to a functioning, thriving settlement. Hope is in solidarity with, and the creativity and RESILIENCE of refugees. Hope is in Uganda’s progressive refugee policy. Hope is in innovation, in collaborating with other like-minded organizations and learning from each other. Hope is in the Light and Love of our donors who support our mission at One Light. I let this Hope wash over me and comfort me.

We are co-designing and building an innovative Resource Center with residents and locals. Next week we will be in Uganda to secure the best space for and soon help build a center with tools to help revolutionize life in the camp. Agriculture, Health, Education, Housing. I become excited, I’m proud, grateful, and humbled... to lend my small rock to this mountain of a team at OLG, who reminds me of my own light, of your light, of the One Light that connects us all.    

By Kristin Kohler Kristin is a mom, a chef, and the Administrative Coordinator for One Light.

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Refugee Resource Center: physical, sheltered buildings at a refugee settlement dedicated to empower refugees to solve critical challenges in new ways to create lasting solutions toward liberation from charity and dependence.  The possibilities are many, and critical for sustaining populations for decades– tool lending libraries, sustainable agriculture, 3D printing labs, education hubs, and more.

Image Credit: Trocaire - an Irish organization dedicated to supporting the most vulnerable people in the developing world, while also raising awareness of injustice and global poverty in Ireland.

References: [1] "History of South Sudan", Wikipedia [2] "Three months ago, it was a tiny Ugandan village. Now it's the world's fourth largest refugee camp", by Kevin Sieff, Washington Post [3] "Turning the world's largest refugee camp into a 'big city'", by Julian Hattem, Public Radio International