Bidi Bidi refugee settlement, Uganda – Every morning, Rose Inya makes her four younger siblings breakfast and gets them ready for school. In the evenings, the 16-year-old, who is herself still a student, prepares dinner, tends to her vegetable garden, and puts her sisters and brothers to bed.
She assigns them household chores and monitors their homework. When they misbehave, she reprimands them, and when they are sick, she is the one who cares for them.
Inya and her siblings, who are South Sudanese refugees, live alone in Uganda’s sprawling Bidi Bidi refugee settlement. They fled their village of Avumadrichi with their mother in 2016. Their father and eldest brother stayed behind. Six months ago, their mother went back to try to earn some money. They have not heard from her since.
According to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), Uganda hosts the largest number of unaccompanied child refugees in the world – some 41,200 in 2018 – with the majority less than 15 years old and nearly 3,000 younger than five. Most of them come from South Sudan, which has been mired in civil war since December 2013.
Coping with the inflows of minors is one of many challenges facing the landlocked East African country, which, despite being one of the less-developed nations globally, is the world’s third-largest host of refugees, with some 1.2 million asylum-seekers in 2018.
Many Ugandans were themselves displaced during Idi Amin’s rule in the 1970s and later during an armed campaign by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army rebel group. And while Western nations are increasingly shutting their doors to migrants, the UN and the humanitarian community have praised Uganda’s unique hosting model, which allows refugees to work, farm, and study.
But hosting so many vulnerable people comes with challenges for the government, the UNHCR, and partner organisations in the refugee settlements. Unaccompanied children face a unique set of risks, including sexual exploitation, early pregnancy, and even robbery, according to Johnson Ochan Abic of World Vision International, an aid organisation.
Nassa Yangi was 17 when she fled South Sudan’s capital, Juba, to Uganda in May 2017 with seven of her nieces and nephews, the youngest of whom was only four. She cared for the children in the Rhino Camp refugee settlement until she was able to trace her mother, who was some 80 kilometres (48 miles) away in Bidi Bidi, with the help of the Uganda Red Cross.
“I was the mother and the father – I did everything,” she said.
Yangi said she cried when she heard her mother’s voice over the phone. They were reunited in Bidi Bidi in June 2018, after more than a year apart.
But some children will never see their parents again. Agnes Night’s mother was killed by a stray bullet while they were fleeing the South Sudanese town of Morobo together three years ago. Night, 16, now lives in Bidi Bidi with Asiki Emmanuel, a neighbour from her village that she came across on the road to Uganda who agreed to take her in.
When children arrive at the settlement alone, the NGOs seek out volunteer foster families from the same tribes who speak their language and share their customs.
Arikanjilo Lodong, 31, has taken in 11 foster children alongside his six biological children since fleeing fighting in South Sudan’s Equatoria region in July 2016. Four of them are siblings he met on the road to Uganda; they continue to live with him today. Of the seven other children he agreed to foster when he arrived in Bidi Bidi, six have since been reunited with their families.
“I miss them, really, I miss them,” he said of those who have been returned to their parents. “Even when I went there [to visit some of them] last year, one girl said she wanted to come [back with me], but her father refused.”
But not all the children are so happy with their foster parents. Taban Joseph, 17, from the South Sudanese town of Magwi, said his foster father “does not love” him.
“He is rude,” Joseph said, noting he does not always let him go out with friends. He also said his caretakers buy school supplies for their biological children but not for him and their other foster children.
World Vision International has about 70 case workers overseeing some 6,000 unaccompanied children in Bidi Bidi. They also rely on a network of volunteer para-social workers, who are refugees themselves and live in the settlement, as well as community-based child protection committees to monitor for signs of abuse.
Before legally signing children over, the UNHCR and partner NGOs check prospective parents’ criminal records and ask community leaders to vet them. The families must also attend training sessions on positive parenting, child abuse, children’s rights, and how to recognise withdrawal and other symptoms of trauma.
Some say the foster families do not do enough.
“The caretakers, what they do is give them food if it is there, give them basic necessities, but when we look at the psychological status of these children, it’s actually not all that well,” said Seme Ludanga Faustino, a South Sudanese refugee who cofounded the organisation I Can South Sudan, which provides music lessons and other social activities for children in Bidi Bidi.
The organisation also aims to forge friendships between children from different ethnic groups.
Stephen Wandu, I Can South Sudan’s co-founder and a well-known singer-songwriter in South Sudan under the stage name Ambassadeur Koko, fled to Uganda in 2016, becoming a refugee for the second time in his life.
He had previously lived in the Central African Republic as a child during the Sudanese civil war. Wandu’s parents divorced when he was young and his father died when he was a teenager, so he understands how it feels to be alone. That is why he felt compelled to help when he heard of the mass influx of South Sudanese children to Uganda.
On a recent Wednesday at the church where the organisation meets, some four dozen children were rehearsing a song about peace they would soon be recording with the Ugandan singer JM Kennedy. A clear leader in the group was Bosco John, a 13-year-old from the South Sudanese city of Yei who wants to be a lawyer when he grows up.
For John, the music sessions are a chance to forget about life as a refugee. He said his mother has mental health issues and his father stayed behind in South Sudan to look after their land. John fled to Uganda in August 2016 with a neighbour, who he continues to live with, but who, he says, gives him too much domestic labour to do. School is tough too – classrooms are overcrowded and lacking in materials.
But John, normally a gravely serious child, completely transforms when he picks up a ukulele. Practising the new song with his friends, suddenly he becomes all confidence and flair.
“When you sing, you’re able to sing out the issue that is torturing you internally,” Ludanga Faustino said.