Gulu Urban Refugees Shares Lockdown Ordeals

By Alex Pithua

Alex Pithua

Some refugees that had started rebuilding their lives when they came to Uganda have relapsed due to continued disruptions cause by the coronavirus disease. 

In the Northern Uganda City of Gulu, urban refugees who found normalcy, healing and peace of mind after fleeing conflict from their home countries have again lost their means of livelihood due to Covid-19 restrictions. 

According to United Nations High Commission for Refugees, UNHCR, there are about 91,000 refugees living in urban areas in Uganda. Gulu City alone is hosting over 2,000 urban refugees.

The City which is just recovering from the two decades Lord’s Resistance Army rebellion borders war ravaged South Sudan.  Its proximity attracts most of the South Sudanese refugees. Other refugees living in Gulu City are from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Rwanda, Somalia, and central Africa Republic. 

Before the lockdown majority of them were engaged in different economic activities like hair dressing, carpentry, construction, sculpting, tailoring and designing. But the lockdown imposed by government in March 2020 led to closure of businesses, some of which have never re-opened. Most of them lost their businesses capital to provide for their families. 

“Lockdown is a nightmare” Ms. Juma Sekina told Refugee and Migration News

Juma Sekina, South Sudanese refugee is living in Pece Vanguard Gulu City with 40 members in extended family, She says she missed all relief assistance provided to refugees during the lockdown 2020Photo by Alex Pithua

Ms. Sekina is a south Sudanese and an active member of the Voice of Salvation Church. She is known by refugees for her kind heart and support to fellow refugees.  During the first lockdown, she housed 40 refugees from her extended family in her house and majority were refugee students.

The lockdown found Ms Sekina unprepared and they missed out on all humanitarian assistance saying she has managed to survive the lockdown by faith and sharing whatever little she had with other members of their church, Voice of Salvation. 

“I survived by the grace and mercy of God with my large family. Before lockdown I have been surviving with help from my husband who is in South Sudan but as time went on, things became hard for us because he was not sending money yet I have a large family.” Ms Sekina told Refugee and Migration News in an interview at her house. 

Sakina’s kind neighbors also fellow refugees and Ugandans would sometimes share with her food items. Ms Sekina has a food shop where she vends food items on credits to support her family. 

“I borrowed from food stores until restrictions were lifted,” she said. 

Ms Mary Athieng also from South Sudan was earning her basic needs through hair dressing. Her experience in the lockdown is similar to that of Ms Sekina. 

She said her refugee friends and Ugandans in the neighborhood gave her food items when she closed her saloon during the lockdown.

Having a Kind Landlord saved me;

Mary Athieng is South Sudanese fefugee living in Gulu City describes how she survived in the lockdown Photo by Alex Pithua

Unlike many landlords who were putting pressure on their tenants or throwing them out over rent, Ms Athieng’s land lord was understanding and even comforted her to continue living as she finds ways to pay in installments. This sustained her until the lockdown was uplifted to a period she started getting customers for hair plating.

A number of the urban refugees are registered in resentments, but because of their efforts to survive, they relocate to urban areas to engage in economic activities were they can tap the market and eventually they end up in urban areas. 

But like many urban refugees, Ms. Athieng is still struggling to survive.  She misses the food and cash distributed to refugees because of the distance and high transport cost which has not reduced even after the lockdown.  

Ms. Athieng is appealing to South Sudanese refugees to be good to Ugandans for standing with them in such difficult situations. 

Uganda has a friendly refugee policy that allows them to integrate with the host communities to rebuild their lives. 

Mr. Tesema Alem Hagos is an Ethiopian refugee running a guest house in Gulu City.

“We survived the lockdown because we stocked food in the house when the lockdown was announced in Uganda. We had a good relationship with our land lord and this saved my business” Mr. Alem told Uganda Refugee and Migration Media

Mr. Testabset Beyene is the Chairperson of the Eritreans refugee in Gulu City. A good saving culture saved his family from starvation. The Eritrean community also stocked food in the house and managed to also support Gulu Covid 19 task force with assorted food items worth two million Uganda shillings. 

According to Beyene a number of Eritreans closed their businesses in Gulu town because of high cost of living. Some have relocated back to Nakivale refugees’ settlement in Isingiro district where they had originally registered on arrival to Uganda.