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Building Safe Futures for Refugees

By Allison Hastings

At the Nakivale Refugee Settlement in the Isingiro district of Uganda, 150,000 refugees are working and learning, building businesses, and going to school. They are raising their children and making temporary spaces feel like home. They are trying to create better futures for their families.

Across the country, Uganda is home to 1.5 million refugees—the most of any African nation. Most are from neighboring South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, countries mired in conflict and struggling with economic uncertainty for decades. They come to Uganda to seek peace and stability, so their children can safely go to school. Once in Uganda, they begin the difficult work of rebuilding a life in a foreign place, away from relatives and friends, surrounded by new neighbors who have also left everything behind in pursuit of safety and opportunity.

Serving Refugees in Uganda

In June 2019, Opportunity International launched a pilot project in Uganda 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 communities.

The program began with extensive listening in the Nakivale Settlement. Researchers asked questions about refugees’ financial needs and behaviors, then used this information to develop tools and training designed specifically for these communities. By May 2020, 950 refugees had received financial literacy training, 90% reported that they were actively saving their earnings, and 200 refugees were participating in financial diaries, an ongoing reporting program to track progress over time.

The Pandemic’s Impact

As the UNHCR Global COVID-19 Emergency Response noted in April 2020, “Socioeconomic impacts of COVID-19 are disproportionately high for the forcibly displaced and Stateless whose access to formal labor markets, education, and public health services is often not on part with citizens of a country.” Put simply, refugees, internally displaced people, and their host communities were all identified as highly vulnerable groups during the pandemic.

Uganda experienced one of the longest lockdowns in the world, and due to the economic impact of the pandemic, plus some shifts in funding and partnerships, we scaled back the growth of our refugee program. Less than two years ago, we were focused solely on Nakivale in partnership with Opportunity Bank Uganda Ltd.

The future of our refugee initiatives was uncertain, but we remained unwaveringly committed to this essential population. We know that 80% of displaced people live in areas affected by acute food insecurity or malnutrition, refugee children are 5 times more likely to be out of school than non-refugee children, and over 100 million people have been forced to flee their homes. As an organization focused on those living in extreme poverty—and one that is especially conscious of those that other organizations cannot or will not serve—we didn’t give up. Instead, we took all that we had learned so far, built new partnerships, and continued to develop tools to serve the unique needs of refugees. 

A Bright Future for Refugee Programs and Families

Over the past 18 months, building on the initial success of the pilot and the insights gathered from extensive listening, our work serving refugees in Uganda has grown exponentially. We have much to celebrate:

  • We expanded our financial inclusion programs to serve urban refugees in Kampala and Mbarra. 
  • We launched a partnership with the Dutch Government’s Challenge Fund for Youth Employment in October 2022. This program will continue financial inclusion in Nakivale and expand it to the Rwamwanja Refugee Settlement, too. 
  • Through this initiative, we created 1,194 jobs and improved 1,560 jobs for refugee youth.
  • We established a branch of Opportunity Bank Uganda Ltd. in Nakivale, and it was officially opened by HRH The Princess Royal, Princess Anne, in October 2022. 
  • In April 2023, we began a two-year pilot in partnership with FINCA International to help strengthen the capacity of Early Childhood Development centers in refugee settlements.

You can watch their inspiring stories now:

As we recognize World Refugee Day, we are celebrating these services and initiatives—and each of the remarkable refugees we serve. Like any broad demographic category, refugees come from different countries and circumstances, and have diverse abilities and skills. They are young and old, men and women, business owners, farmers, teachers, and health workers—and thanks to the support of our global community and committed partners, we are meeting them where they are, developing innovative solutions to their unique challenges, and helping them create futures marked by hope and opportunity. 

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