Women who fled fighting in South Sudan queue with their children for immunizations at the Bidi Bidi refugee resettlement camp in northern Uganda, in December 2016. Photo by James Akena/Reuters

Struggling to cope with life at Bidi Bidi – the world’s largest refugee settlement

The South Sudan refugees settling into Uganda’s Bidi Bidi settlement camp are struggling to cope with what has become a threadbare life.

Among more than 270,000 refugees fleeing a civil war, 86 percent are women and children, now crammed into 89 square miles that used to be a remote village in the northwestern Uganda district of Yumbe, an empty and arid patch of land. Now they are faced with increasingly dire situations and lack of life-saving assistance.

[Cover story: Inside South Sudan]

Eunice Lajara is a refugee from Magwi County, in the Equatoria region in South Sudan, who lost her three siblings in the nation’s conflict, pitting the troops loyal to incumbent President Salva Kiir against those of his former deputy, Riek Machar. Caring for four family members, she said, is an everyday struggle for survival.

“We are faced with hard conditions here,” she said. “Life is not easy at the settlement. It’s about hustling and struggling to survive. We abandoned everything and came empty-handed when the fighting broke out.”

Just over a year after it opened on Aug. 1, 2016, Bidi Bidi is under enormous pressure and refugees face a desperate lack of life-sustaining food, clean water, basic accommodations, health care, education, shelter, proper sanitation and other basic needs. Young people in particular struggle with limited access to primary and secondary education as well as job opportunities as others look for food and health care.

The refugee situation has been exacerbated by ongoing World Food Programme (WFP) food ration cuts. The United Nations’ food agency in June was forced to reduce its rations by 50 percent and warns of further cuts due to financial constraints.

The WFP needs some $117 million for its supplies to get through December but is $65 million short.

Lajara described the daily challenges facing refugees at the camp.

“It’s hard to depend on unreliable food aid. I have to do odd jobs like washing people’s clothes and digging in gardens to get some money to fend for the family,” she said. “I have to make sure we have something to eat at end of the day.”

Tears rolled down her cheeks.

“But even if we don’t have anything to eat, we are at least safe here,” she said. “We are spared of the daily fighting, killings, sexual abuses and abductions. I can’t still forget how my three other siblings and [another] relative were killed as we ran.”

Another refugee, James Gatwal, also lost family members in the conflict between the two leaders.

“We are suffering here because of two selfish leaders and their personal interest. They only think about themselves and forget about the suffering of other South Sudanese,” he said. “I lost both parents. They were killed when the fighting broke out. I don’t know whether my sisters and relatives are dead or alive. We all ran away in different directions.”

Within the sprawling Bidi Bidi expanse of mud-walled huts and tents are helpless but hopeful humans of all ages, tucked in makeshift tarpaulin shelters. Despite the hardships, they try to endure. At evening peace clubs and women’s groups, refugees use poems, plays and folk songs to portray a mix of distress, telling a story of their past and present.

“We hope for a brighter future. We shall overcome this suffering and pain one day. We pray for peace and stability in our country,” said Samuel Gabriel Lam, a refugee from the Equatoria region.

The Bidi Bidi refugee camp, which has over 270,000 people, was meant to accommodate 100,000. Photo by Mike Brand/Jewish World Watch


The government and humanitarian agencies say the massive influx at Bidi Bidi, which was meant to accommodate 100,000 people, has strained the existing limited public services, such as health, education and water.

“Uganda deserves tremendous praise for continuing to welcome refugees fleeing violence in South Sudan with open arms,” said Charlie Yaxley, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. “Host communities in northern Uganda in particular have shown outstanding generosity and solidarity with refugees, donating much of the land on which the refugee settlements are hosted.

But the scale of immigration — since last July, an average of 1,800 people per day have fled to Uganda from South Sudan — is overwhelming the ability of local communities to keep up.

“Health clinics suffer a shortage of drugs, doctors and health care workers; schools face a shortage of teachers, classrooms and school materials while many refugees are receiving half food rations as a result of severe underfunding,” Yaxley said. 

“It is critical,” he added, “that the international community comes forward and matches the generosity shown by Uganda by ensuring the country receives the political and financial support it needs to ensure refugees can live in safety and dignity.”

Both the refugees and host communities around the settlement face significant development challenges as humanitarian agencies throughout the camp struggle to respond to a crisis at hand, whether the need is for food, health care, psychosocial support or myriad other problems.

More than 55,000 out of 90,000 school-age children in the Bidi Bidi settlement are massively crowded into 12 primary schools and one secondary school made of tents and temporary structures that have outlived their usefulness. They were intended to last only three months.

At least 45 schools need to be built to fill the existing need in Bidi Bidi to accommodate the remaining 35,000 children at home, according to officials.

“We don’t have the capacity to accommodate all the children in schools,” said Robert Baryamwesiga, the Bidi Bidi settlement commandant. “The schools are overpopulated and crowded. We have fewer classrooms, desks and teachers. We need support to ensure we construct permanent structures and classrooms, recruit teachers, buy desks and textbooks.”

Potable water is another major challenge. The settlement lies within the water-stressed Yumbe district, forcing refugees to move long distances and wait in lines to get whatever water is available.

Nearly two-thirds of the water supply is trucked in, with the rest provided by hand pumps and meager pipe distribution systems.

“We still truck water from long distances because there aren’t enough bore-holes and motorized water systems to bring a sustainable source of clean water to the refugees in the settlement,” Baryamwesiga said.

Although Uganda has been widely praised internationally for maintaining open borders to people fleeing war, violence and persecution, and for its progressive approach to refugee management and protection, chronic underfunding is threatening the humanitarian agencies’ capabilities in Bidi Bidi.

Baryamwesiga said the region needs “some $1 billion to transform and achieve what we call ‘minimum standards’” for school construction, water systems, health facilities and the people to staff them.

Yaxley agreed, adding that support organizations “use any influence they may have to bring warring parties to the table in dialogue in order to address the root causes of displacement, to end the bloodshed and to create an environment where it’s safe for the refugees to return home.”

Widespread khat addiction threatens Yemen’s future

Abdulmalik, a 13-year-old boy from Yemen’s capital city Sana’a, started chewing khat leaves at the age of seven. “My father would pass me small handfuls at weddings,” he told The Media Line. “But I didn’t start chewing every day until I turned 12 and started to work. Khat gives me energy for work.”

“I chew khat everyday,” he said proudly, exposing the pesto-colored glob of mush packed into his cheek. 

Indeed, each day after lunch, tens of millions of Yemenis from all strands of society devote at least three to four hours to the purchase and mastication of catha edulis, a tall-growing shrub native to the Arabian Peninsula and African Horn that produces an amphetamine-like high when chewed.

In patriarchal Yemen, the ritual was restricted to the province of men for millennia. In recent years, however, women and even children have picked up the habit in growing numbers. The World Food Program (WFP) estimates that 73 percent of Yemeni women today chew the leaves with some frequency, while some 15 to 20 percent of children under the age of 12 chew khat daily.

According to Hind Aleryani, an anti-khat Yemeni activist, the emerging trend of child khat use could spell disaster for the impoverished country of 26 million that just entered a fragile political transition following last year’s bloody, anti-government uprisings, which unseated 33-year autocrat Ali Abdullah Saleh. The WFP estimates that about 15 million person-hours per day are spent chewing khat in Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world. And 40 percent of the country’s water supply is channeled into the cultivation of the native shrub, despite the fact that Sana’a is on track to be the first capital city to run out of water.

“Whenever we talk about the problems of khat and its impact on the economy, agriculture, water, health and social life in Yemen,” she said, “we say that the only solution is a new generation that is not addicted to the drug. However, the problem is that the new generation has been addicted ever since childhood.”

Donald Burgess from Yemen’s UNICEF office echoed Aleryani’s concerns about addiction. “The habit of chewing khat can easily be picked up by young people as it has an important place in the tradition and social habits of Yemenis, and is not looked upon as something very serious,” he told The Media Line.

“The habit starts off as an imitation of the adults in the family and later develops into an addiction,” he said. Yet “despite the fact that an increasing number of children in Yemen are picking up the habit, there are no accurate statistical data or studies on the negative effects of khat on children.”

From the incidental data and indirect evidence that are available, it is clear that khat has a great impact on Yemeni families. According to WFP, “Households spend an average of 10 percent of their expenditure on khat – more than on health and education combined.”

That, according to Burgess, “acts as a supporting factor to the decreased appetite and loss of vitamins, minerals and fluids that khat induces in children, resulting in the development of fragile bones, pale skin, anemia, weight loss and decreased growth rate.”

Abdulmalik, for his part, said his daily khat expenditure averages about 500 Yemeni Rial (or $2.33), a significant amount in a country where almost half the population survives on less than $2 per day, according to the World Bank.

Another major side effect is decreased academic performance, explained Burgess. “Children who indulge in khat chewing tend to prioritize khat sessions over time spent on their studies,” he said. Following the khat session, he added, “lethargy and decreased interest towards any productive activity” set in, thus wasting more “precious time that could be used for studying or reading educational material.”

Fauzia, a 28-year-old artist who grew up in Sana’a, told The Media Line that it was forbidden for her and her friends to chew khat as children or even teenagers, “but now it seems to be more common for girls, though mostly in elite circles,” she said.

Up to the Next Generation

Aleryani argues that it is up to Yemen’s next generation to change old ways of thinking about khat. “The image of khat for many teenagers, especially boys, is a sign of becoming an adult and a man,” Aleryani says. “Their dream as kids is to grow up and chew khat just like their fathers, and recently this has become the case with women as well.”

Earlier this year, Aleryani spearheaded an anti-khat campaign on Twitter and Facebook, urging the new transitional President Abd Rabbu Mansur Hadi and his government to ban khat in public offices. Only one small gesture came from Minister of Education Dr. Abdulrazag Al-Ashwal, who ordered schools nationwide to promote a day of awareness about the drug’s effects. When asked by Aleryani to introduce regular lessons into the curricula, the minister said, “It's not possible now … maybe in the future.”

With about half of the country’s 26 million residents currently under the age of 15, Yemen’s population is expected to almost double over the next two decades, creating a whole new set of economic and resource challenges for the small Arabian Peninsula state. As long as the vast majority of Yemenis continue to view khat chewing as a sacred tradition, instead of an unhealthy addiction that is strangling the economy, devouring precious natural resources and weakening family ties, the future looks grim.