Nakivale Refugee Camp is a place you and I could hardly begin to imagine. I’m not talking about the living conditions or material poverty present in the camp (both of which are imaginably appalling) but the strength of the human spirit present there amongst even the most afflicted of people. People like Steven and Joseph*, whose stories you’re about to hear. In Nakivale, the most unthinkable human suffering exists alongside the most radiant flashes of hope and courage. It is experiencing this that changed my life forever and hopefully, by the end of this article, will change yours too
(*All the names in this story have been changed to protect those involved)
Located in the Western part of Uganda, Nakivale Refugee Camp is a sprawling patchwork of stick and mud huts stretched out under the hot sun and is home to over 55,000 refugees, half of whom are children. They are the silent sufferers from a series of long-running conflicts that have long fallen out of our 24-hour news cycle, only making intermittent appearances when something particularly heinous happens or some foreign diplomat decides to visit.
On arriving at Nakivale, newcomers are herded off large trucks into a central holding compound, which at the time we were there, appeared to be nothing more than a large storage shed approximately the size of your average school hall. Here they are given some basics for survival; simple cooking utensils, a tarpaulin to throw over whatever they manage to erect from the sticks they scrounge up on their first night, and a small allotment of land to farm. And that is it. This is now their new ‘home’. Yet it’s still a far cry from being ‘safe’ or ‘comfortable’, even in comparison to the terror they’ve already fled. This is attested to by the recounts of violent encounters in the night and the countless children we encounter with glazed eyes, skin infections and distended stomachs, bloated and taught thanks to the lack of any basic health care.
We were there to connect with a number of local Pastors. We had come to learn about these Pastors in Nakivale through the ever-growing number of African families at our own Church in Australia who had previously resided in the camp, many of whom have family members that are still there. After a 20 kilometre trip which took 2 hours across the shockingly pot-holed road, we arrived and were instantly pulled from the car by the warm handshakes and embraces of the local Church members. They ushered us into their small mud brick Church jam-packed with the regular faithful, along with a healthy serve of curious onlookers, no doubt there to see the spectacle of three ‘mzungus’ (whities) sweating it out under the hot tin roof.
Staring back at me from every corner of the Church, I was confronted by something I never expected to encounter in such a camp. Hundreds of bright beaming smiles. Men, women and children, dancing and singing in complete surrender and total defiance of the depressing reality of their situation. This joy made absolutely no sense to me.
How could such people – whom by definition of being ‘refugees’ had experienced such persecution, violence, grief and loss – behave in such a way? What possible explanation could be given for any display of behavior or emotion even slightly resembling happiness, let alone hope?
And yet this was only the beginning. I was to be further impacted by what came next.
After the service we sat down with four of the local Pastors. At our prompting, they shared a few humble requests; tin sheets to roof the Churches, chairs, some Bibles, and assistance for those most vulnerable in their community- the sick, the orphaned and the widowed. Not once did they mention their own needs.
The fact of the matter was this: had we just left then, despite having done nothing that morning of any ‘practical assistance’ to alleviate their suffering, there is not a doubt in my mind that these men would have thanked us, hugged us, and sent us on our way with their sincere love and gratitude.
They would have said nothing to us about the fact that as we spent time with them that day, their very lives were in grave danger.
Thank God we made sure to ask them to share their personal stories and their personal needs- not because there is anything ‘likable’ about them but because they fully illuminate the incredible depth of character these men possessed. A depth characterized by the kind of love, courage, humility and willingness to sacrifice that the majority of us could only dream of aspiring to.
Pastor Steven – The ‘eternal’ refugee
Pastor Steven, the eldest of the four, stood to his feet and braced himself as he prepared to deliver the full weight of his heartrending testimony to these unassuming visitors. Pastor Steven’s story reflects the tragic absurdity of the millions of men and women this world has quite literally ‘rejected’. Born and raised in one refugee camp, Steven tried to return to the country of his parents only to be beaten, tortured and driven away, landing once more in another refugee camp. Now, at age 50, this man- who has never once lived a day in his life with any relative sense of belonging, safety, certainty or security- is being told that he is being sent home again, where his very presence could spell certain death. In all of this what was his crime? What is he being punished for? It is not that anyone has ‘convicted’ him, it’s just that in the world’s eyes, he doesn’t belong. No one wants him – not his country, not his people, not our government and not the UN. Chances are for Steven that he will pass through this world born, lived and died forever a refugee.
Pastor Joseph – The man with the stolen wife
To any husband, Joseph’s story should sound and feel like nails screeching down a blackboard. Just thinking about it causes me to physically wince and ache for this man. After returning with his wife from a refugee camp in Rwanda, those in power in Joseph’s own country decided that having stolen this man’s land and property was not enough. They wanted his wife. As is common in such conflicts, what the violent want, they get. And so the rebels took Joseph’s wife and used her for their own satisfaction, and soon she was pregnant. Having lost his wife, Joseph figured there was no immediate good to be achieved in losing his own life. So he fled to Nakivale Refugee Camp. Yet he is far from defeated. Joseph is the senior Pastor, a role he applies himself to with the kind of passion and enthusiasm you could never imagine belonging to such an afflicted man. The children run to him, the elderly drop their knee in respect for him and his flock adore him. Evil has not snatched this mans capacity to give of himself his greatest asset, his love.
Pastor Peter – The survivor
Peter was the youngest of the four Pastors we met that day. At the time he told us his story, we were under pressure to leave the camp in order to make it home before dark, however I could tell he was now eager to share his story too. It didn’t take long to get to the crux of his predicament. Three years ago, at just 27 years of age, Peter became the only surviving member of his family. Not one other of his seven siblings made it out of his home country alive.
Pastor four – The stories left untold
Pastor four didn’t say a word. We never got to hear his story and I doubt we ever will. But he represents the millions of stories untold by those this world doesn’t know what to do with. Those we encamp, detain and deport because we’ve simply lost the creativity and will to find a better way. His nameless presence should serve as a reminder that for every story we hear, there’s countless others like it that we don’t hear.
I can only describe my experience of Nakivale Refugee Camp as a place where the mind cannot keep up with the heart. So many things there make no sense, and yet I saw most clearly in the people there the inextinguishable spirit of those whose hope is in God. For all the questions I left Nakivale asking, I’m certain of one thing: I will never forget those smiling faces and those dancing feet. I will remember daily those courageous men. In every trial or battle I face, I will remember them and I will strive to love and live like they so unceasingly do.