How Refugee Child Headed families survived during the Covid-19 lockdown

A young refugee cultivating during the lockdown to raise money to support his siblings Photo by James Chanwat

By James Chanwat and

Cindy A. Kalita

James Chanwat
Cindy A. Kalita

“Spending more time tilling peoples land was for our safety and feeding during the lockdown”

When Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni declared a lockdown in the country in March 2020 to prevent the spread of Covid-19, it took many people by surprise.

Vulnerable groups such as refugee child headed families faced the wrath of the lockdown. With no parents or families to cling on to, the children found themselves alone and discovered digging and spending more time in people’s gardens as a way to get food.

Majority of child headed families in Ugandan refugee communities are unaccompanied children who got separated from their families during violent conflicts in their home countries. The eldest in the household is often forced to care for the other younger siblings, playing adult or the parenting role.  

Many of the children lost their parents during the war. In Kiryandongo settlement of Bunyoro region in mid-Western Uganda, there are numerous child-headed families.

The Settlement is home to over 60,000 refugees, majority of whom are from South Sudan. Others are from upper Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Burundi, Rwanda and including landslide internally displaced persons from Bududa in Eastern Uganda.

17 year old Joseph Laku who came to Uganda with his four other siblings, narrates his experience in the lockdown.

“Before the lockdown, my brother had travelled to South Sudan to look for a job and the lockdown found him there. There was no way for him to come back to Uganda” Laku tells Refugee and Migration News.

Like other families, their brother’s absence made life more difficult since he was the breadwinner.

During the heightened period of coronavirus in Uganda, the Ugandan government tightened the lockdown restrictions.

Relief food agencies including the World Food Program (WFP) reduced relief food ratios and opted for two months food ratio but maintained the cash in a bid to reduce on having many people in one place as a way of preventing spread of Coronavirus and follow the standard operating procedures (SOPs).

“Food ratio was reduced when corona (covid-19) broke, worsening everything. It became difficult to follow SOPs. It was not easy to get liquid soap for regular hand washing, no face masks until when we went to church and at least we were given one face mask each,”Mr Laku explains.

However, in most parts of Uganda, the lockdown increased food production because communities realized that keeping in the garden or in their farms was the safest way and place to be in and preventing corona virus. This gave an opportunity for the child headed families to find work for food.

 “We decided to dig people’s gardens and mud people’s houses to raise little money for feeding at home” Laku tells Refugee and Migration News

Much as the Ugandan government refugee policy puts refugees in settlements to allow them to have access to land on which they practice different livelihood activities, during Covid-19 restrictions land owners opted to use their land instead of hiring them and this scarcity made it hard for refugees who hire land to add to what government gave them.

Water was also a challenge; “We had no money for buying liquid soaps, I  decided to put water in a small jerry can in our compound so that my siblings wash their hands regularly although without soap,”

24 years old Nyandeng Deng heads a family of seven. She narrates their life during the lockdown.

“I am a refugee from South Sudan. We came to Uganda with our Mum. Later our Mum became ill and went back to South Sudan. It is now three years since she left us in Uganda.

Deng adds; “During the lockdown, life was difficult because food ration was reduced. I could borrow money and food stuff from neighbors to feed my siblings and if I received our ration from the UN, I could pick part of the money to pay for debts. Our other problem was getting soap for washing clothes because the one we received from the UN cannot take us up to the end of the month” said Deng.

Leader of cluster N, David Bilfam notes that managing child headed families has been a challenge because children need a lot of attention from communities and organizations”

During the lockdown Bilfam put away fear of catching the virus and moved from door to door mobilizing the children to follow SOPs.

“I helped the children to follow the SOPs from the Government,” David told Refugee and Migration News

Not all hope is lost, organisations like Danish Refugee Council (DRC) and Save the Children supports them with soap, scholastic materials, income and skills trainings for youths

James is a video Advocates doing humanitarian work in Kiryandongo district, Mid-Western Uganda. Cindy is a youth reporter.