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Refugees Helping Refugees Are The Real Heroes

Emanuel was the first of many people I met on a trip to Uganda who are volunteering to parent unaccompanied children.

08/22/2017 11:56 EDT | Updated 08/22/2017 12:07 EDT
Paul Bettings/World Vision Canada
World Vision President Michael Messenger listens to the stories of refugee families.

It always feels a little strange when World Humanitarian Day rolls around. Once a year the spotlight turns away from the crises and onto the responders — people who are more accustomed to working behind the scenes than having their stories put on display.

This past year hasn't been an easy one for humanitarians. We're facing more disasters than ever before and the world is in the midst of the largest humanitarian crisis since 1945.

While I could go on about the challenges we've faced in the last year, they're nothing compared to what civilians caught in the middle of these crises face every day. And sometimes, the greatest humanitarian actions don't come from those of us responding, but from those in the middle of it — the ones who respond even when they are trapped in the crisis themselves. On a day like World Humanitarian Day, it's these people who deserve the spotlight, not us.

Two families, a shared story

I was recently in Uganda where a million refugees have fled from conflict and famine in South Sudan. Two of those refugees are Emanuel and Peter, who I met at Imvepi Refugee Settlement on the northern border of the country. Even though their identities are different — Emanuel is the father of a large family and Peter is a child of only 14 — their stories are painfully similar.

When Emanuel witnessed the killing of his brother and sister-in-law, his decision to flee was made clear. With five children in tow — his three plus his brother's two — Emanuel and his wife Agnes made the dangerous trek across war-torn South Sudan earlier this year.

Paul Bettings/World Vision Canada
Peter, John, 12 years old, and Richard, eight, also fled South Sudan.

Around the same time, Peter's parents were also murdered. And in a similar response to Emanuel's, he grabbed his younger brothers and a few belongings and ventured into the bush in hope of finding a border they'd only heard about. Both families ate what they could find and hid in the bush in fear of their safety. Eventually, they made it to the Ugandan border, where refugee settlements have been set up to receive them.

These stories are significant not only because they are similar. They are significant because since arriving in Uganda, Emanuel and Agnes have agreed to be foster parents for Peter and his brothers. Together they live at Imvepi Refugee Settlement with five children from their own family and three from a family they had never even met.

"I decided to consider them as my own"

I've been in the humanitarian sector long enough that it's rare for something to stop me in my tracks and leave me completely taken aback. This was one of those moments.

These are people who, in the middle of the fastest-growing refugee crisis in the world, have decided to do something that so many would not be willing to. Their daily challenges include not having enough food, not having jobs, not knowing where their next home will be, and dealing with the trauma of having lost family members to a conflict they did not start or wish for. On top of this they've agreed to foster orphaned refugee children — with no questions asked.

These are people who, in the middle of the fastest growing refugee crisis in the world, have decided to do something that so many would not be willing to.

Amazed, I asked Emanuel whether the decision to take the brothers in was a difficult one. His response was simple: "When I saw the age of the children and heard their story, it became very hard for me to reject them. I realized that even if food supplies are short, it would still be better than what they came from."

Agnes, who is expecting another child in September, agreed: 'When my husband brought these children in, I decided to consider them as my own, even though it's very hard because we don't have enough soap or food."

Emanuel was the first of many people I met on this trip to Uganda who are volunteering to parent unaccompanied children. Roughly 10,000 children have crossed into Uganda without parents or guardians. Of those, World Vision has managed to place 3,500 with foster families like Emanuel and Agnes.

Paul Bettings/World Vision Canada
Emanuel, Agnes, their five children and the three brothers they now foster.

This foster family initiative is part of a progressive response to the refugee crisis in Uganda. Departing from typical refugee responses in other countries, the Ugandan government has opted to give each refugee family a small plot of land where they can grow food and build a house.

How Canada is helping

Initiatives like this are only made possible through the generosity of donors. Recently the government of Canada announced that Canadians donated $21.3 million to their Famine Relief Fund between March 17 and June 30, which the government will match. Of this, $1.85 million will go to helping refugees in Uganda.

In northern Uganda I saw the concept of family redefined because of people who were willing to step up in dramatic ways. When I think of humanitarian heroes, these are the people who come to mind. Their resilience and compassion is astounding, and is something that should be highlighted on World Humanitarian Day.

Lend your own support to families like Emanuel's and Peter's. Donate to our Raw Hope fund to help children and families in fragile contexts.

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