A New Safe Space in Northern Uganda

IsraAID’s Tamar Kosky Lazarus visits northern Uganda, where a new center will provide daily support and activities for hundreds of refugee children. This week, I traveled to Palorinya Settlement with IsraAID Uganda’s team to celebrate the opening of IsraAID’s newest Child Friendly Space, supported by COHRP.

Bordering the Nile in remote northern Uganda, the surroundings are breathtaking. As you drive on the single lane dirt road from the nearest town — Moyo — you are enveloped in the lushest greenery. There are few vehicles, save the odd motorbike, and at night the sky is ablaze with stars.

However, the challenges and environmental fragility are palpable. Palorinya is home to 121,000 refugees. Almost all fled violent conflict in South Sudan. Despite the warm welcome and beautiful landscape, the South Sudanese refugees in Palorinya are still very much part of the refugee crisis. Uganda hosts the largest refugee population in Africa, with an “open door” policy and porous borders, particularly with South Sudan — a short journey north from here.

In a stark situation, the new Child Friendly Space provides cause for optimism. That much is clear from the high demand for these services. In just two afternoons of open registration, more than 620 children had already signed up to the center, with another 400 anticipated.

Despite the magnitude of the challenges, Palorinya has come to be seen as a model of refugee-host community integration. The refugees live alongside the 13,000-strong host community in the same thatched, circular huts, sharing all social services. They live in the same ‘villages’ within the settlement, attend the same schools, shop at the same markets, go to the same health clinics, and pride themselves on an ingrained culture of coexistence. The settlement itself is formed from land lent by the host community for as long as is needed. IsraAID now has two Child Friendly Spaces here, and the facilitators at both are an equal blend of hosts and refugees, with little concern for who is who.

This year’s extended ‘rainy season’ has made the only access road impassable at points, preventing some children from making their daily hike to school and grounding school supplies from reaching the settlement’s remotest villages. Communities are worried about the imminent dry season, when they will rely solely on boreholes — instead of also rainwater harvesting — and queuing for water, and the threat of bushfires is constant.

The Child Friendly Space opening celebrations were a joyful multi-generational, whole-community affair, filled with laughter, speeches and lots of dancing. However, as one 14 year old girl confidently recited a poem titled ‘Defilement’ as part of the ceremony, addressing issues of sexual abuse within the community, the underlying need for this space and the severity of the context were striking.
Solomon, IsraAID’s Child Protection Officer, and Liliar, the head teacher of Iboa Primary School, agreed that they are facing serious child protection issues which require urgent community-led attention, from Sexual and Gender-based Violence to teen pregnancy to trauma-related symptoms, and soberingly, abandonment. Liliar noted that a number of children — from as young as eight to ten years old — have been temporarily abandoned by parents who return to South Sudan to try to earn more money. Meanwhile, Liliar’s teachers are struggling with classes of more than 200 children.

The new center, together with the school, aims to provide a safe space for Iboa’s children. Within the fenced-in grounds a community garden is being planted, and, as the school’s summer break approaches, children are already hanging out in the vicinity from early hours, waiting eagerly for activities. The facilitators from the refugee and host communities are trained by IsraAID’s Child Protection specialists to identify issues, provide support, and run a safe, warm space for this vulnerable population.

Our thanks go to COHRP for supporting the construction and operation of the new Child Friendly Space, and to the IsraAID Uganda team for their wonderful ongoing support to the children of Palorinya.

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Tamar Kosky Lazarus is IsraAID’s Senior Director of Development and Communications.