After fleeing South Sudan, refugees begin again in Uganda — with the help of RICE West Nile

After Keji lost her parents to the violent, ongoing conflict in South Sudan, she and her siblings fled to Arua, Uganda — a city near the border that has become a major hub for refugees looking for a better life. But Keji and her brothers and sisters needed help rebuilding their lives after losing everything. And they’re not nearly alone; almost 800,000 refugees live in Arua. This is where AJWS grantee Rural Initiative for Community Empowerment West Nile (RICE West Nile) steps in — the organization is dedicated to helping refugees find work and housing, and easing a transition that, for many, is extremely traumatic.

Aleku Rolex Robert, a coordinator at RICE West Nile, explains that the organization targets the most vulnerable households “to build resilience and help them stand on their own.” RICE West Nile invited Keji to join a workshop to learn how to become a tailor and gave her a start-up kit including a sewing machine, materials, and money for three months of rent. Tailoring helped Keji provide for herself, and she eventually was able to go back to school.

Keji, one of many refugees in Arua supported by RICE West Nile. Photo courtesy of RICE West Nile.

Arua is a border town with access to three other countries: the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and the Central African Republic. While it’s a cosmopolitan city and a diverse place to live, refugees living there still face barriers. Resources are limited, the prices for goods are increasing, and the impacts of the climate crisis, including inconsistent rain and food shortages, are prevalent.

Munduru Liberia, RICE West Nile’s Senior Operations Coordinator, says that, “the main challenge for refugees right now is livelihood. There is a lot of hunger in the refugee settlements… So we support livelihood training so that the refugees can fend for themselves. They start farming, they start gaining skills, they start earning income and they start saving.”

Munduru Liberia at work. Photo by Giovanni Okot.

Meeting refugees where they are

RICE West Nile runs a variety of programs in refugee settlements throughout the West Nile region, all aimed at helping people become self-sustaining and process their trauma.

Staff trains refugees to earn money through sustainable farming and kitchen gardens; the organization helps people secure farmland and provides seeds so they can grow drought-resistant crops such as cassava, beans, and maize to supplement their food rations. RICE West Nile uses an approach called ‘Enabling Rural Innovation,’ or ERI, which aims to help farmers to build their own resources to achieve food security and income security.

The organization also offers trainings in tailoring, hairdressing, carpentry, vehicle and motorcycle repair and maintenance, arts and crafts and more. With RICE West Nile’s support, one group of women started growing hibiscus, and now they have expanded their business to also process and package hibiscus wine, juice, tea, and powder.

To date, the organization has supported about 13,500 refugees in the region, including about 12,000 in developing agriculture and about 4,500 in livelihood skills training.

RICE West Nile runs an Enabling Rural Innovation (ERI) training to support farmers. Photo by Giovanni Okot.

The climate crisis complicating RICE West Nile’s response

As so much of RICE West Nile’s work is land-based, the ongoing climate crisis — and a drought spanning across East Africa — presents new challenges. Inconsistent rain makes agricultural work more difficult. Liberia explains that West Nile where Arua sits receives some of the least rain in the country.

“Rains used to start in March, but now rains are starting in May. You don’t know when the first season is starting and when it is ending. It’s very unpredictable,” she says.

Additionally, rains that do come are intense and in shorter periods, leading to flooding. There is now a lot more wind, so many crops are blown away. RICE West Nile encourages these farmers to grow drought-resistant crops — and is ready to help people shift into other vocations if farming becomes too challenging.

Changing lives, and feeling pride

Godfrey Ovuru, Senior Accountant at RICE West Nile, says that the demand for their support can be overwhelming; they simply cannot help every person in need. “The rest all keep looking at you. What else can you do for us?” he says.

But amid these overwhelming challenges, the team refuses to cower.

“What keeps us inspired,” Liberia explains, “is that hope has never run dry. The support that we receive from partners like AJWS has been helping us to boost and change the environment of the refugees.”

And many refugees have found success and stability with the help of RICE West Nile.

“The lives of our beneficiaries have changed and their hopes are restored,” says Ovuru. “You see somebody who comes very traumatized, and now they have a second chance to start their life again.”