These 5 refugee girls created a powerful film about their hopes for a better future

This is a guest post by Gayle Nosal, Sauti director.

In the summer of 2012, I was invited to travel to Uganda to meet a group of 30 girls living together in a boarding house in Hoima, a town of approximately 50,000 people in the western region.

Many of the girls were refugees from nearby Kyangwali Refugee Settlement and some were Ugandan citizens from rural, impoverished villages on the outskirts of Hoima. They were brought together by Think Humanity, a U.S.-based non-governmental organisation, for a highly unusual program providing food, housing, and school fees so they could attend secondary school, a resource otherwise unavailable to them.

The 15-year-old girls lived like sisters — singing and dancing, ironing their uniforms, studying, attending church, and sharing stories of their pasts. Each girl dreamed of changing her life and navigating toward some kind of self-determination.

When I first met them I was struck by the tonal differences they adopted when they politely spoke to me as a “visitor” compared to the casual way they interacted with each other when they thought I wasn’t paying attention.

What I also wanted to hear was what they talked about when they stood together in a small group off to the side. I was curious about the questions they asked one another at night. When they awoke before dawn to bathe and prepare for school, how did they encourage one another? What made them laugh at dinner? Could the songs they sang as they held hands and walked be sung louder for many others to hear?

From Hoima, I visited Kyangwali Refugee Settlement to meet some of the girls’ families. Uganda’s Kyangwali Settlement, located west of Hoima and near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), has been home for more than 20 years to refugees who fled war and persecution in DRC, Rwanda, and South Sudan.

Despite years of efforts by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), NGOs, and community-based organisations (CBOs), the people of Kyangwali — like in other refugee settlements — continue to face food insecurity, little-to-no income-generating opportunities, inadequate secondary education, and recurring outbreaks of preventable diseases. These challenges and many others disproportionately impact young women.

I wanted to make a film documenting the experiences of these East African refugee girls who had arrived to the settlement as children, spent nearly their whole lives in the camp, and were now coming of age, hoping for a life beyond the constraints of a protracted refugee experience.

To really know these girls and their lives, I wanted the essence of their own voices, not the voices of experts, not the stories written about them in the news, and certainly not scripted testimonies. So on my second visit to Uganda, I arrived with a team comprised of local and U.S.- based filmmakers. We told the girls that they would be creators of a film about their own lives and that we would be working alongside them to complete it. We provided them with creative options for sharing stories of their past, present, and future. We trained them to use Handycams, giving them exercises to work on (such as peer-to-peer interviews and video diary entries), and freedom to use the cameras as they wished.

We provided basic art materials so they could also convey their experiences and hopes through drawing. At one point, two girls told us they liked to write poems. The next day, we were presented with dozens of poems — and their authors, excited to read them on camera. These creative options quickly became emotional outlets for the girls, while also being unique ways for them to share their compelling and often-traumatic stories more intimately.

Take, for instance, a few lines from a poem called “Opportunity:”

Opportunity, opportunity.

You are so wonderful

You come for us all, especially we young children

For we are the future generation.

Uganda ranks among the top five refugee-hosting countries in the world, hosting an estimated 1.3 million refugees, mainly from Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan. Uganda has been recognised as a world leader in dealing with the refugee crisis because of its open door policy, and refugee engagement strategies like the distribution of land to refugees — however, this praise must be contextualised with harsher realities.  

The country is receiving far less funds than it needs for refugee support — in 2017 alone, the funding gap was estimated at $348.7 million. For the past five years and still today, new refugees regularly flow into Uganda from Burundi, South Sudan, and the DRC. The lack of funding and increased need has meant that humanitarian agencies are stretched thin. Additionally, this has resulted in reductions in refugee allocations of land and other key resources affecting education access, food access, health, etc.

The film, Sauti (“Voice” in Swahili), focuses on just five girls and their families, each with a different view of what it means to be in a protracted refugee situation for decades. These families understood our goal to allow the girls to tell their stories authentically, using their own voices — without the commentary or opinion of others who were providing humanitarian assistance of any sort.

At its heart, this film is an invitation to share a connection with those refugees who were in crisis decades ago and who, today, are still in crisis. Refugees today and those of the past are all connected to us — we have a shared humanity. Like all of us, they yearn for self-sufficiency and want to create a future of possibility and opportunity for themselves. It is an honor to show the stories of five young women in Kyangwali Refugee Settlement who — like all of us — want to belong.


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