My Experience Working in an Ugandan Refugee Settlement

What is it like to travel to Uganda and work in a refugee settlement? Here is my story embarking on such an incredible journey.

You’re here alone? The border patrol gave me a skeptical look as I attempted to explain my situation. No, I corrected. I was here to conduct gender based analysis (GBA+) research in Uganda’s largest refugee settlement and apply for funding from the Canadian government.

I flashed my yellow-fever vaccine card at her and gave my most confident smile.

With one eyebrow raised, she shrugged and waved me through.

My goal for the trip was to work with a team of Simbi Foundation researchers to help advance gender equality initiatives and girls’ empowerment programs in Uganda. We acknowledged the need to implement a self-sustaining and sustainable project that would benefit Block 10.

A picture that I took of the students living in Block 10, Bidibidi Refugee Settlement.

I had no desire to be like past NGO groups who entered the settlement, shoved money at whatever initiative sounded the best to them, stayed in their air-conditioned vehicles, and then left without a word. How was that benefiting anyone? If anything, it seemed quite insulting to shove the wealth of the Western world into the face of a child.

After flying for 20h+ and then riding in a bus for another 7h+ over unpaved terrain, I tried my best not to complain. My neck ached and my back hurt, but I kept my mouth shut. How could you complain when outside your door children were sleeping in the streets?

These children, as I was soon to find out, had seen some of the worst horrors of the civil war: the death of a family member, having to escape their house in the middle of the night, loosing all their possessions and belongings. The list seemed endless.

A sign posting to remind elementary students at the Twajiji Primary School to avoid early marriage.

In the Bidibidi Refugee Settlement, I worked for a total of two weeks. It gave me enough time to get a brief glimpse of the reality there, but not the whole picture.

I quickly learned that a large number of mothers and children had fled from the ongoing South Sudanese civil war, along with the traumas that carried with it. Most of the men and fathers had stayed behind to watch over their property and secure their belongings.

It was a temporary fix to live in the refugee settlement. Many of the woman I spoke to emphasized that. I wanted to believe it too, but I knew deep down that such a statement would be optimistic.

The South Sudanese Civil War has raged throughout the country for the past twenty-two years, it didn’t look like it was ending anytime soon. More than 4 million people have been displaced, with about 1.8 million of those internally displaced, and about 2.5 million needing to flee to other countries (citation). Even the UN has succumbed to the belief that this situation was not going to improve in the coming future.

It broke my heart as we passed through Kampala (the capital city of Uganda), but also made me appreciate all the things I took for granted in life. The roof over my head. Family by my side. Support in each personal endeavor.

Despite what I believed to be ruin, the inhabitants saw as a way of life. I had met some of most generous and friendliest people throughout my stay there. To this day, I keep in-touch with many of my friends over Whats App.

Upon arriving to Canada, one of the most frequent questions that I’m asked is: What was the hardest part of your trip? Living in a refugee camp? Seeing poverty and ruin? Not getting mugged or kidnapped?

No, I would say. The answer might surprise you.


It wasn’t the lack of running water or the holes in the ground that served as toilets, even the malaria-carrying mosquitoes and 40°C heat didn’t bother me. The worst part was having to leave the most beautiful place in the entire world and travel back home.

The hardest part was saying goodbye.

Did you like this post? Check out my other article Querida Espana (Dear Spain).

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