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Life on the Margins: Meeting the Unique Needs of Refugees and Students in Uganda

By Allison Kooser

On the edge of the Nakivale Refugee Settlement in Uganda, Senga Ndagize tills the land on his small farm. He lets the dirt sift through his fingers—dirt that is not his; dirt that doesn’t hold his history; dirt that holds hope and possibility; dirt that could give his family a bright future.

Senga Ndagize (left) working the land at the Nakivale Refugee Settlement.
Senga Ndagize (left) working the land at the Nakivale Refugee Settlement.

Senga arrived in Uganda in 2006 from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). He and his wife are two of the 1.5 million refugees who have found a new home in Uganda—just two of the thousands trying to grow a livelihood while living in settlements, where subsistence farming is the most common way to support themselves and their families.

He and his wife fled DRC when soldiers began killing people in their neighborhood. They, like so many, had to run to save their lives.

“We could hear gunshots. We lost 12 relatives. My wife and I are the only ones who survived from our family,” Senga recalls.

“I didn’t know where we would run to, all I knew is that I needed to run.”

Senga (left) standing proud amongst their crop with his fellow farmers.
Senga (left) standing proud amongst their crop with his fellow farmers.

Uganda, A Safe Haven for Refugees

Uganda has long been a safe choice for refugees escaping violence and instability in their home countries. Thanks to their 2006 Refugee Act, Uganda grants refugees more rights and protections than other countries in sub-Saharan Africa. As a result, they house the most refugees of any country in the region. Today, most resettled families are from South Sudan, Burundi, and DRC, where violence continues to ravage communities and drive people from their homes. But it’s not a new phenomenon; Uganda hosted Polish refugees fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe nearly a century ago.

While refugees like Senga work tirelessly to provide for themselves and serve their communities, these families face an uphill battle as they try to carve out a space in their adopted homeland.

Mary, a refugee from Burundi holds small ducklings she has bred with her two children.
Mary, a refugee from Burundi holds small ducklings she has bred with her two children.

As Mary, a Burundian refugee also living in the Nakivale settlement, shared, “Here in Nakivale, things are hard if you are here with your family. I get my food every month, but that is not enough to survive on. We get maize and sometimes oil and sale, but not always…If I could get a loan, I would set up a business so that I could generate an income for me and my children.”

Refugees like Senga and Mary need unique support—and Opportunity International is proud to offer it.

In June 2019, Opportunity and its partners launched the Refugees, Innovations, Self-reliance, and Empowerment (RISE) project. The project aimed to help integrate and financially include refugee and host communities, promote self-reliance among refugees, and stimulate local economic activity in refugee settlements and surrounding host communities.

We began serving families in two Ugandan settlements, including Nakivale, where Senga and his wife live with their four children through financial and digital literacy training, tailored financial products, and savings groups.

Refugees waiting in line for food at the Nakivale Refugee Settlement.
Refugees waiting in line for food at the Nakivale Refugee Settlement.

Nakivale is not an easy place to be. Thousands of families are recovering from trauma in a country that is not their own, living in make-shift structures that they now call home. In the middle of Nakivale is the Settlement Center—a space built for 600 people that now houses nearly 3,000. The surrounding area—the Nakivale region—is home to some 120,000 refugees and receives about 400 new arrivals each week.

In September 2021, we took the next step to serve these resilient families: opening an Opportunity Bank branch in the Nakivale Settlement where refugees can access all of the financial resources and services they need to save, build businesses, and plan for their futures—futures that were, at one point, dangerously at risk.

Reopening Schools, Restoring Education

Meanwhile, halfway across the country, Jude Nsumba stands in front of a classroom full of children. Once again, his school is full of laughter, recitations, and the screech of chalk. He looks around, he smiles, he exhales.

He wasn’t sure he’d see this moment.

On January 10, 2022, Uganda reopened schools that had been closed for nearly two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some educators attempted virtual education, but due to severely limited infrastructure and digital access, most young people were not learning for the duration of these closures.

In addition to the learning loss, officials estimate that one-third of students will never return to the classroom, largely because of early marriages, teen pregnancies, and child labor. Hundreds of schools like Jude’s didn’t survive; thousands of students won’t ever go back.

In August 2021, Uganda’s National Planning Authority estimated that 3,507 primary and 832 secondary schools would not survive the shutdown. By January, “Kampala’s suburbs [were] littered with ghost structures that were once schools,” The Guardian reported.

At home, students weren’t faring well, either. Many children began working to supplement their families’ income. And between March and September 2020, pregnancies among girls in Uganda aged 10-14 increased by 366.5%.

“Given that teenage pregnancies and early marriages are significant correlates of school dropout,” the Ugandan National Planning Authority noted, “it suffices to project that many girls will not return to school after reopening.”

Wilfred, 11 years old, wants to be a nurse when she grows up.
Wilfred, 11 years old, wants to be a nurse when she grows up.

We can look to previous prolonged school closures—in Pakistan after the 2005 earthquake, or in West Africa after the 2014 Ebola outbreak, for example—to know that any school closure is detrimental to a child’s education. In those past crises, when students were required to find a new school and re-enroll due to permanent closure, many children, especially the most vulnerable, never returned.

It’s a devastating blow in a place where education is the closest thing we have to a secret weapon in the fight to break the cycle of poverty.

As public schools receive support from local governments, low-cost private schools need private financing to stay alive. Through our Education Finance program, Opportunity International has made these essential financial services available to educators for years—and these tools have become increasingly vital over the past two years.

Prior to the pandemic, Jude Nsumba was an active participant in Opportunity International’s Education Quality program, where he was learning how to improve his students’ academic achievement. As COVID-19 hit Uganda, he knew he had to adapt to protect his students—and keep his school afloat. As a low-cost private school meeting an important gap in the education market, his school operated as a business. And with all of his students at home, Jude immediately lost all of his revenue.

Jude Nsumba outside his school during the pandemic.
Jude Nsumba outside his school during the pandemic.

In response, with guidance from Opportunity’s Pathways to Reopening plan, Jude brought together parents and teachers to brainstorm solutions. Together, they decided to plant vegetable gardens on the school grounds. They set up a market stall to sell the produce, eventually earning a sustainable income to support ongoing school costs.

Thanks to their innovative problem-solving, Jude’s school survived.

Now, Jude is back—and still relying on training and support from Opportunity as he learns to navigate this entirely new educational environment.

Doing More Than Simply Surviving

For refugees like Senga and Mary, and the thousands of young people in need of education in Uganda, every day brings challenges. One more day without food, a house, or a safe place to call home. One more day out of the classroom. One more day without options or a support system.

Opportunity International helps change this story. Through financial services like loans and savings, training on everything from financial literacy to agricultural best practices to how to reopen a school after a pandemic, community support through groups like co-ops and school clusters, and our brand new Opportunity Zone that brings agriculture, education, and micro-banking services together in one community, Opportunity steps in and says: Today can be different.

Today does not have to be one more day.

Today can be the start of a bright future marked by potential. By options. By possibility. By opportunity.

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