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In Uganda, a million refugees from South Sudan—with a million stories to tell

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Women carry water back to their shelters at the Bidi Bidi refugee settlement in Uganda. The country is now hosting one million South Sudanese residents who have fled war and hunger in their own nation. Photo by Coco McCabe/Oxfam

The war in South Sudan opens old wounds for a mother and daughter scarred by a childhood accident.

She’s one in a million. Literally.

Gorgeous in her flowing dress, a warm smile lighting her face, Nadia is a refugee from South Sudan who crossed the border to seek safety in Uganda. More than three years of conflict has torn her country apart and Uganda, with one of the most liberal refugee policies in the world, is now hosting a million war-weary South Sudanese citizens. Famine has recently wracked parts of their young nation and profound hunger continues to stalk six million people.

Nadia isn’t her real name (we’ve changed it to ensure her security), but among more than a quarter million people now crowded into the Bidi Bidi refugee settlement—and about 725,000 others sheltered across Uganda—her struggles, and her resilience, are as real as any.

To me, she was the star of a recent story-gathering trip I took to Bidi Bidi, now the largest refugee settlement in the world. In her small borrowed corner of Uganda—a plot about 30 meters (98 feet) square—all was in order, an order that defies the tumult from which she fled,  an order that she began creating, mud brick by mud brick, from the moment she arrived with her six children in August 2016. A house for herself and her husband, one for her children, and one for the kitchen, divide her plot. She made the bricks and earned the money to buy the thatch for the roofs. She dug the latrine—more than six feet deep—and tends the garden planted with okra, corn, pea leaves, and amaranth.

What drew us in that day? I think it must have been her smile, her energy, and possibly the scar, from a burn, stretching across her forearm. The history of that scar, and all the heartache that stems from it, haunts her—to tears.

But it’s not for herself that Nadia cries, not for a second. The tears are for her daughter because the same accident that injured Nadia as an infant years later befell her daughter when, as a baby, she too tumbled into a cooking fire. Nadia has no memory of the circumstances around her own accident, but the trauma her daughter endured is seared in Nadia’s mind: The flames that day quickly did their damage, leaving the face of her daughter badly deformed.

The baby was in the hospital for 10 months of long, slow recovery. During that time, Nadia met a woman who was very helpful, and arranged for the baby to have surgery to repair some of the damage around her eyes and nose. The woman made sure Nadia had copies of all the child’s medical records so that, when she was fully grown, she would be able to have reconstructive surgery.

That was the hope Nadia clung to for years—through all the blame heaped on her for not preventing the accident, through all the suspicion that her family is cursed, through all the insults her daughter has weathered—but then, the war came with its own overwhelming cruelties. In the family’s haste to flee, all the medical records were lost along with the contact information for the woman who had been so helpful.

Nadia couldn’t stop her tears from welling.

“I’m worried about the child,” she told us quietly.

That child, too, is one in of the million, each with a story of flight and hardship, each with memories of home and dreams for a future free of violence and conflict. For now, Uganda is a safe haven for all of them.

But as much as people are grateful for that safety, what they long for is peace—peace for a new nation that has known almost nothing but war. And some, like Pastor Richard, are nearly sure that day will come.

“I convince myself biblically that there’s time for everything,” said Richard, who has established an open-air church under the trees at the nearby Imvepi refugee settlement. “We suffered, but there’s a time we shall also enjoy life, so all this I can just conclude by saying I’m very hopeful. . . . We shall get the peace back to South Sudan.”

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