Queen Chandia, a South Sudanese refugee who cares for 22 children, harvesting land lent to her by Ugandans. (Nichole Sobecki for The New York Times)
In this era of rising xenophobia, Solomon Osakan takes a different approach in northwest Uganda.
Mr. Osakan manages one of the largest concentrations of refugees anywhere in the world: more than 400,000 people in his rural district.
Refugees are allotted some land — enough to build a little house, do a little farming and “be self-sufficient,” said Mr. Osakan, a Ugandan civil servant. Here, he added, the refugees live in settlements — with no barbed wire and no guards.
“You are free, and you can come and go as you want,”Mr. Osakan said.
As many nations are securing their borders and turning refugees away, Uganda keeps welcoming them. And they keep coming, fleeing catastrophes in this part of Africa.
Uganda has up to 1.25 million refugees, perhaps more, making it one of the most welcoming countries in the world, according to the United Nations.
The policy of hosting refugees works because of the willingness of rural Ugandans to accept an influx of foreigners and shoulder a big part of the burden. About $200 million in humanitarian aid to Uganda this year will largely pay to feed and care for the refugees.
The government ensures that spending on refugees benefits Ugandans as well. When money for refugees results in new schools, clinics and wells, Ugandans are more likely to welcome than resent them.
But the refugees need places to live and small plots to farm, so villages across the nation’s north have agreed to carve up their communally owned land and share it with the refugees.
“Our population was very few and our community agreed to loan the land,” said Charles Azamuke, 27, of his village’s decision to accept refugees from South Sudan, which has been torn apart by civil war. “We are happy to have these people. We call them our brothers.”
Mr. Azamuke’s town, Ofua, is bisected by a dirt road, with the Ugandans living on the uphill side and the South Sudanese on the downhill side. On both sides, the men had nothing but tolerant words for one another. But the womensaid that disputes did ariseover limited resources like firewoodand over who gets priority in lining up for water at the well.
President Yoweri Museveni, an autocratic leader in power for 32 years, says Uganda’s generosity can be traced to the precolonial days of warring kingdoms and succession disputes, when losing factions often fled to a new land.
Mr. Museveni was once hailed as an example of new African leadership. He confronted the AIDS epidemic, and he invited back Ugandans of Indian and Pakistani descent who had been expelled during the brutal reign of Idi Amin in the 1970s. But his security forces have beaten political opponents. Freedom of assembly and expression are curtailed.
Josephine Bako, 13, was adopted by her aunt, Queen Chandia, after her parents died in South Sudan. (Nichole Sobecki for The New York Times)
Still, Uganda’s openness toward refugees makes Mr. Museveni important to European nations, which are uneasy at the prospect of over a million refugees heading for Europe.
Other African nations host refugees, but polls show that Ugandans are more likely than their neighbors in Kenya or Tanzania to support land aid or the right to work for refugees.
Part of the reason is that Ugandans have fled as well. They fled during the murderous reign of Mr. Amin and in the period of retribution after his overthrow. In the 1990s and 2000s, they fled when Joseph Kony, the guerrilla leader, terrorized northern Uganda.
Many Ugandans found refuge in what is today South Sudan. Mark Idraku, 57, was a teenager when he fled with his mother to the area. They received a little less than a hectare of farmland, which helped support them until they returned home six years later.
Mr. Idraku has since loaned about one hectare to a South Sudanese refugee named Queen Chandia, 37.As violence hollowed out her home country, Ms. Chandia, the mother of a girl and two boys, started taking in orphaned children. Now 22 children call her “mom.”
Ms. Chandia said the land has made all the difference.
But some of the refugees who came from South Sudan last year complained about receivingless land than previous refugees had received.
“Even if you have skills — in carpentry — you are not given a chance,” said one refugee, Simon Ludoru, as he looked at a construction crew building a nursery school. The school would be for Ugandan and South Sudanese children, but the workers were mostly Ugandan, he said. The general contractor, Sam Omongo, 50,acknowledged he had only “about three” refugee workers.
One worker, Amos Chandiga, 28, a Ugandan who owned 2.5 hectares of land, said he had lent land to two refugees.
“They asked me, and I gave it to them,” Mr. Chandiga explained. He patted his chest. “It comes from here, in my heart.”