Congolese Refugees Look Inward for Support Amid COVID-19 Scourge

Uganda, Africa’s largest refugee host, is imposing restrictions on movement after another spike in COVID-19 cases, and that’s creating an even greater economic struggle for the vulnerable in urban areas. One refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo is finding a way to overcome that struggle and help other refugees.

Cutting polythene bags, using leftover material and then sewing, Noella Kabale and her team are hard at work as they make, among other items, masks and sanitary towels.

Kabale arrived in Uganda in 2011 from the DRC, fleeing civil strife. She settled in Kampala, but little did she know life was going to be even more difficult.

Living hand to mouth, Kabale got vocational hands-on training for arts and crafts and eventually formed the Refugee Entrepreneurship Association with her small savings.

Kabale said the group is working to overcome perceptions that refugees are beggars by producing items to help deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I know putting on a mask is not a guarantee,” Kabale said. “But at least it’s going to enable this one person to curb the spread of COVID. So, our community cannot really afford, to get … like, every person could not afford to buy a pad. So, we sat down, we have the material with us — why can’t we support our own community?”

The Refugee Entrepreneurship association group consists mainly of divorcees, single mothers and youths, many of whom are victims of gender-based violence. Most of the products made by these women are sold online and during functions, and that money is used to run the association.

Leoni Mudumbi said life has changed since she joined the group in 2018.

“Thinking about Congo and living here, mixing those thoughts would kill us,” Mudumbi said. “She [Kabale] started by counseling us, and we then started teaching ourselves how to make all the things you see here. It really helps us.”

Uganda is home to about 1.5 million refugees, 92,000 of whom live in urban areas.

Julius Mucunguzi, communications chief in the prime minister’s office, says over the years, refugees have become vital members of the community.

“Refugees are just not in countries as a burden,” Mucunguzi said. “Yes, they are burdened, but they have a contribution they make. And that is precisely one of the much [key] issues that define the refugee policy of Uganda.”

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has recorded 628 coronavirus cases among refugees, with almost 200 of these cases in Kampala. Eleven refugee deaths have been recorded since March 2020.

While the UNHCR has stepped up support for refugees in settlements during this current second wave of the pandemic, help for urban refugees is limited, said agency official Wendy Kasujja.

“Now with the second wave, we are only focusing on the most vulnerable,” Kasujja said. “Not everybody — it’s not blanket support anymore. So, we are only looking at the most vulnerable. However, in terms of health, in terms of livelihood, that’s for whoever needs it.”

Uganda is on a partial lockdown that ends July 19, and the restricted interdistrict travel affects many refugees and locals.

But by using what little savings they have and by selling their products, Kabale and her team continue to lend a hand to fellow refugees and locals.

Source: Voice of America