This piece, written by Angela Wells with photos by Rachel Reed, is part of a reporting partnership between ONE and Refugees Deeply.
BOROLI SETTLEMENT, UGANDA – Opia Joyce is raising 14 children, both her own and those of her dead brother. She is also the leader of a community group of three dozen women, all South Sudanese refugees in Uganda like herself.
She counsels them when they are in distress, advocates on their behalf to humanitarian groups working with refugees in Uganda and finds foster parents for abandoned children.
Joyce is a women’s affairs leader in Boroli, one of 18 refugee settlements in Uganda’s Adjumani district. She was born in South Sudan, but her father brought the family to Uganda shortly after she was born to prevent her from having a childhood overshadowed by war. She stayed in Uganda for 21 years before going home to South Sudan in 2011. But after two years, when peace did not last, Joyce returned to Uganda.
In January last year, Joyce was appointed by women in the camp to lead the community group. “They chose me because they’ve seen that I have so many children in the house and I’m able to take care of them,” Joyce said. “When I speak to them, it makes a lot of sense because of the responsibility I have at home.”
Politically motivated conflict that erupted in December 2013 caused the bulk of refugees to flee South Sudan in recent years. Such reports have been confirmed by the United Nations, with warnings of a Rwanda-type genocide in the making.
Nearly 700,000 South Sudanese have fled to neighboring Uganda in the past three years. The majority are women and children.
Most of them lost the men in their lives to war – the husbands, fathers or brothers who traditionally provide for families. The women are now joining together to build a different kind of support system, fighting for peace instead of power or resources.
Throughout Uganda’s refugee settlements, women leaders volunteer in makeshift schools, teaching children the alphabet under trees for free. They share food with their neighbors, care for each other’s children and lead focus groups to hear grievances and then bring them to NGOs.
“Women bring peace among themselves. If you have a sick neighbor you take [her] to the hospital, or even if she is not sick, you go greet [her] and ask how [she] slept. If a group meeting is planned, then we all go together. If there’s a problem at your neighbor’s place, you must go and help resolve it. This is what brings peace among women,” said Susan Agull, a South Sudanese refugee who fled to northern Uganda.
Uganda is one of the most welcoming countries in the world for refugees, allowing refugees to settle on donated land and enjoy employment rights and freedom of movement.
“We see the human worth of refugees,” said a Ugandan official from the Office of the Prime Minister in Adjumani district. “Many of us were refugees ourselves [during Uganda’s civil war] so we will do whatever is humanly possible to help.”
But the large numbers arriving from South Sudan are testing the limits of what is possible. Uganda’s refugee policy is designed to help refugees become self-reliant, but in reality many are hungry and so are their children. Drought during the last growing season led to failed harvests, and food rations last year were cut in half for many refugees. More people keep arriving in Uganda while calls for funding from the international community go unanswered.
“Hunger is our biggest problem,” Fatuma Nasu, a South Sudanese refugee in her 50s, told a meeting of Joyce’s community group in Boroli last November. “If your family has 10 people, you will receive enough food for six. We received rations just three days ago and [mine] are already gone. Women are in the worst situation. We do not have any power.”
Women often now rely on each other more than they can on foreign aid or humanitarian support.
Alice Yangi from Eastern Equatoria has 12 children. "Women can bring peace in this world by educating those who are ignorant about peace. If you know what peace is, you go and tell others how peace can change someone’s life."
Susan Agull from Juba has six children. “Women bring peace among themselves.”
Zaria Zubair is from South Kordofan. “Women can change the world through respect. If you have personal respect, the community respects you and it proceeds to the whole world. Then it’s also how we conduct ourselves in the community. Because once the community is positive about you, everything will be positive.”
Mary Akwer from Jonglei has ten children. “If there’s no peace in your heart, it means you won’t stay in peace. There must be peace in your heart.”
Akway from Jonglei has six children. “When women are seated together and you have something in your hand, you must divide it among yourselves. And then later when a sister of yours gets something she will also share with you like you shared with her. That is how peace comes among people who are staying in one place.”
Dak Nyabol from Malakal has nine children. “If women want to become good in this world, just like we are seated as neighbors, let us love each other. Even for example, a Ugandan woman is my neighbor, I would love her like my sister. And we respect each other. That is what brings peace.”
Atior Sham from Jonglei has seven children. “What brings peace amongst women – when the children of your neighbor are hungry, you give them something to eat just as you give to your children. You take care of your neighbors’ children just like your own children, don’t differentiate … Good deeds are the ones that bring peace.”
Rose Poni from Lowa has three children. "Women, they bring a lot of change in this world. Give back to your grandchildren so they also can bring peace to the family and the community. Take care of the sick, whether it’s a relative or not, and take her to the nearby health center to get treatment.”
Awadia Julu from Jonglei has nine children. “A woman, if she is determined to bring peace, she will start it in the house, and once she goes outside she will spread peace to other people. If a woman lives with love, peace will come. You love your neighbor as yourself. You will love your other sister like you love yourself. If your sister does not have something and you have it, you take it and give it to your sister. This is how love and peace starts.”
“These women have energy. They’re the ones who take all responsibility of the house,” Joyce said. “They work together, which is good because it increases their knowledge. Even if you do not have experience in something, when you gather together [you learn] something that you didn’t know.”
Joyce is called on to support women coping with the harrowing fallout of the war and their subsequent displacement. She says one woman committed suicide in Boroli and another two women attempted to hang themselves in recent months. Some widows give in to pressure to marry again, but, according to Joyce, their new husbands do not treat them well and refuse to take care of their children.
“Sometimes women feel their only option is to go home to the war and die there because of the hardships here,” she added.
In late February, the U.N. declared a famine in parts of South Sudan, and refugee women and their families continue to travel to Uganda in an effort to survive.
Joyce’s work is to band the women together and help them persevere, despite food ration cuts and limited aid. “Women who are strong, cannot be shaken,” Joyce said. “The good thing is that God created me as a woman.”