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Imagine Welcoming 8,200 South Sudanese Refugees In A Day

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South Sudanese refugees queue for water and food at a settlement in Adjumani District on June 4, 2016. (Photo: Charles Lomodong/AFP/Getty Images)

Last year, Canadians were justly proud that our country welcomed 25,000 Syrian refugees in just a few months. Last month, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that in just three weeks, it processed 37,491 refugees from South Sudan who were fleeing to neighbouring Uganda -- 8,200 arrived in a single day.

The largest number of those refugees joined 138,000 already at a nearby settlement in Adjumani that I visited in January, before the influx caused by renewed fighting in the civil war.

The settlement is run for the UNHCR by the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) Uganda and the work is supported by Canadian Lutheran World Relief (CLWR). LWF also manages the reception centre at the border and on July 19th, staff counted 41 refugees per minute.

"In all my career, I've never had a situation where we were receiving over 8,000 refugees a day and international media had not picked up on it, and that's something that's surprised us all," says Jesse Kamstra, LWF country representative in Uganda and the man who toured me and my group through the Adjumani settlement earlier this year.

Stepping up to assist are Canadian churches: early in August, CLWR made an emergency donation of $20,000, matched by $30,000 from the Anglican Church's Primate's World Relief and Development Fund.

"You can't even begin to image how timely this contribution is," Kamstra wrote in thanks. "Yesterday we got confirmation that we have a cholera outbreak in our settlement."

The outbreak was contained with help from Médecins sans Frontières (MSF).
South Sudan was once a good-news story: it achieved independence from Sudan in 2011, ending Africa's longest-running civil war, against the government in the north. But bad news followed in 2013, when a civil war began between political rivals in the new nation, divided akong tribal lines. The result has been one of the world's biggest humanitarian crises, with millions displaced.

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In this Monday, Aug. 29, 2016 file photo, refugees prepare food in a transit center for South Sudanese refugees in the remote northwestern district of Adjumani, near the border with South Sudan, in Uganda. (Photo: AP Photo/Stephen Wandera)

Adjumani is a settlement, not a camp, because in Uganda, the government has not only allowed in over half a million refugees -- an extraordinary achievement for a small country -- but allows them freedom of movement, the right to work and to set up businesses.

When I visited, I learned that in return for allowing the settlement, Uganda asked the LWF to support schools that South Sudanese and local children attend together.

The settlement is an active place, where families receive not just shelter, but plots of land to grow food, and residents get paid employment, such as helping build housing for the elderly or the handicapped who cannot build their own.

When he spoke to my group, Kamstra was optimistic Adjumani could serve its purpose and close again because Uganda and the LWF have seen it before: another settlement in the same location emptied out when the previous civil war ended. As he explained to me, the South Sudanese are herders and they do not like to stay away from their cattle for long.

The support the Canadian churches have provided to refugees in Adjumani would not have been nearly as effective without contributions from the Government of Canada, but now Canadians need to ask what more they can do.

We should make donations for the South Sudanese to charities we trust. We should call on our government to support both the victims and peace-making efforts. And our media also need to play a role: they should turn their eyes to Africa, where not only great disasters are occurring, but great efforts are being made that it is time for us to join.

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