A Lesson from Deng Bol, South Sudanese refugee

Last week when I arrived in Arua and Adjumani I was shocked.

The two northern Uganda districts have, since December, taken in more than 60,000 South Sudanese who have sought refuge from the deplorable violence in their home country. What jolted me, however, weren’t the urgent needs like water and sanitation that Oxfam and our Ugandan partners are rushing to provide. Instead, I was struck by the relative calm and the determined patience shown by the refugees I met.

People queue up for water at Ocea transit center in Uganda. One hand pump serves thousands of refugees. Photo: Dorah Ntunga/Oxfam

In a hot and dusty place called Ocea, in Arua district, where Oxfam is coordinating a clean water operation for 8,000 refugees, I met 38-year-old Deng Bol. With the eloquence of a teacher (his profession before having to flee), he tells me he prefers to be addressed by his full name, as it helps him recall his father.

“Okay, Deng Bol!” I said, “How many languages do you speak?”

“Four,” he tells me. “English, Nuer, Arabic and Dinka, my mother tongue. It’s so I can connect with as many of my students as possible.”

Uganda's generous host communities

I ask him why he came to Uganda and Deng Bol begins to tell me about the awful violence that leveled his hometown of Bor. His sister was shot and killed, leaving behind her five-month-old daughter. Another sister, just three years old, survived, but with a bullet lodged in her shoulder.

As I talked to Deng Bol and others – Dinka and Nuer alike – I learned how awfully common such tragic stories are in Arua and Adjumani. So many people lost their loved ones, yet more than 60,000 of them have persevered and reached Uganda. The host communities have graciously received them and provided land. It’s now our duty – as Oxfam, but also as good neighbors – to support them as we call on leaders throughout the region to ensure the tenuous ceasefire holds.

“I hope for an opportunity to teach”

Rather than blame one side or another, Deng Bol chooses to live in the present, and he leaves me with a lesson I won’t soon forget. “At the moment I hope for an opportunity to teach, because that’s what I am, a teacher. But our future has been left in the hands of politicians and those who can influence them,” Deng Bol says. “If the fighting does not stop, then we cannot go back home.”

Deng Bol and all the South Sudanese refugees need assistance now to survive and recover, but the most important help we all can give to them is a lasting ceasefire in South Sudan so that reconciliation and healing can begin.

Peter Kamalingin is Oxfam's Country Director in Uganda. Follow him on twitter: @kampetero.

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