A lanky boy wearing torn shorts and ill-fitting black sandals adorned with pink plastic hearts emerged from a grass-thatched hut and walked towards me.
In perfect English, Jacob explained how he had come to live in this remote refugee settlement, one of scores of camps being carved out of the forest across several districts of Uganda bordering South Sudan. 18 months ago he had been one of the privileged few South Sudanese attending high school in Uganda’s capital Kampala. But then a few months ago he received the call that would change his life.
Jacob’s father had phoned to say that the family’s shop in South Sudan had been looted and destroyed. With conflict raging between rival factions of the country’s ruling party, he and nine other family members had fled to Uganda.
Suddenly a refugee
There would be no more money for tuition. Jacob and his older sister could finish the remaining few days of the term, but then they would have to leave their city, their school, and their friends, and come live with the rest of the family in the refugee camp.
Hearing Jacob’s story, I was struck with a powerful sense of sadness—and déjà vu. Nearly a decade earlier I moved to Uganda to work with refugees living in settlements like this one.
My job then involved interviewing hundreds of South Sudanese people about their situation. They explained that desperate conditions in the camps led so many parents to make the often agonizing choice to arrange marriages for their young daughters. With the “bride price” given by the groom’s family, they could pay for food, medical bills, or even school fees for younger children.
I felt a knot in my stomach as Jacob told me about his sister Juliana. From a country where female literacy rates have long been in the single digits, their father had encouraged her to delay marriage until after graduating high school. Now, it seemed only a matter of time before an old pattern would reemerge for Juliana—and for many girls like her.
South Sudan crisis in context
Sudan’s 2005 peace agreement ended more than two decades of civil war, paving the way for South Sudan to achieve its independence and for hundreds of thousands of refugees to return. Day after day, I had heard women’s joyful cries as the huge white United Nations trucks left the camps with excited, if a bit nervous, refugees finally heading home. Now, many of those same hopeful people—and thousands upon thousands of others—have been forced to flee their homes again as violence again spreads across South Sudan after precious few years of peace.
With approximately one and a half million South Sudanese displaced, and more than four million people in urgent need of aid, it is easy to lose hope. But we shouldn’t.
In 2007, a teenage girl in South Sudan had a better chance of dying in childbirth than graduating high school. Since then, thanks to the efforts of millions of aid workers, teachers, and average citizens and the support of a committed international community, those odds had begun to change.
Much of this life-changing development work has, understandably, now been redirected to meet South Sudan’s urgent humanitarian needs, but it is not too late to stop these hard-won gains from being lost.
First and foremost, we need to support development where possible in South Sudan, but with the number of people displaced rising across the region— another refugee crosses the border to Uganda every seven minutes—we must also invest in the tens of thousands of promising young people like Jacob and Juliana who will be living outside their country for years to come.
An opportunity to help
Amidst such immense human suffering, we have a rare opportunity to do things better this time.
People like Jacob, who talks about national unity and rejects efforts to divide his country along tribal lines, are among South Sudan’s best hopes for a peaceful future. If we act now to provide him and others with opportunities to study, get vocational training, or earn some money for their families, we can prevent a new generation from falling prey to early marriage, alcohol abuse, and a lifetime of fighting.
If we invest now in reconciliation and peace building programs, we can bring communities together once and for all. If not, any peace will be fleeting, and children like Jacob will be unable to live up to their potential to make South Sudan a better country for all its citizens.
To preserve their privacy, the names of people in this piece were changed.