What Foreign Assistance looks like: Uganda

Three girls in search of survival and school


Sixteen year olds Lillian, Scobia and Viola fled the violence in South Sudan on foot without any adult guardians. Today, with support from CARE, they are learning to rebuild their lives in Uganda.  

IMVEPI REFUGEE SETTLEMENT, UGANDA — In the heat of the day, Lillian, Scobia and Viola help each other carry large, heavy pieces of wood from a collection point to the temporary shelter they are trying to make into a home at Imvepi refugee settlement in Uganda. They have been sharing a latrine with neighbors with no place to shower, so today, they will build themselves their own bathroom on their land. 

The girls are 16 years old. They are from the same village in South Sudan and fled to Uganda together, along with Viola’s eight-year-old brother, but with no adult guardian. 

Viola and her brother were raised by their uncle. One day last fall, he was killed by soldiers on his way home, leaving Viola and her brother alone. They survived for a few months off of the vegetables in their garden, but Viola did not know how to continue cultivating the garden. When they ran out of food, they moved in with Scobia and her grandmother, who were neighbors in their village.

Lillian had been living with her older sister, after their parents had died. But when her sister got married, she ran off with her husband, leaving Lillian alone. She also moved in with Scobia.

As the violence in South Sudan worsened, the girls became increasingly worried about their safety. But even more concerning to them was that they were missing out on their education as their school was no longer functioning.

“I was afraid that if I stayed in South Sudan, we would get killed just like my uncle,” Viola says. “I wanted to come to Uganda to be safe and get an education, so I can one day get a job and continue taking care of my brother.”

With the help of Scobia’s grandmother, the girls packed food and their belongings, and set off for Uganda on foot. During the journey, they would eat just enough to survive, since they weren’t sure how long they needed the food to last. After walking for seven days, they arrived in Uganda.

Their sights remain focused on getting back in school. They need clothes, and more food, but most importantly they want to go to school.

“School will help me overcome the challenges I am facing. If I have an education, I can get a good job and those challenges will disappear,” Lillian says.

Out of the 1.2 million refugees in Uganda, over 700,000 are children under 18, according to UNHCR. Many of those children arrive in Uganda without a parent or guardian. CARE is assisting these unaccompanied children by helping them construct temporary shelter, providing protection and helping them access psychosocial services through their adult community leaders and CARE’s counselors.

Sometimes a child finds a guardian on the journey to Uganda, or once they arrive in Uganda. Other times a child finds a group of other children and they become each other’s guardians. This is the case with Lillian, Scobia and Viola.  These girls have become each other’s family.

“We do everything together. We collect firewood, fetch water and cook together. We also comfort each other when we are sad, or remembering what we have lost in South Sudan. We are sisters,” Viola says.

“Young girls like these arriving in Uganda alone and fending for themselves are at major risk of violent attacks. They oftentimes arrive already traumatized from violent events that may have occurred on their journey,” says Delphine Pinault, Country Director for CARE Uganda. “With most of the refugees coming from a culture of violence and conflict, it is critical that we work with the entire community, including men and boys, on adopting more caring and supportive behaviors and on resolving conflicts and differences through dialogue rather than the fist.”

One of CARE’s priority interventions for South Sudanese refugees in Uganda is to prevent physical, sexual and emotional violence, particularly against women and girls, and to facilitate access to services for survivors of violence. CARE also works with men and boys on positive masculinity, or learning to collaborate with women and girls.