Refugees tell their stories through art

Confident. Juliana Warija (right), a refugee, explains some of her artwork to Daudi Karungi (centre), the main curator of the exhibition and Kalule at the exhibition. PHOTOS BY EDGAR R BATTE.

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Art. Refugee artists living in Uganda last weekend showcased their talents in art at an exhibition to mark the World Refugee Day. Edgar R. Batte attended the exhibition.

A bird flying, a butterfly perched on a flower and hills overlooking the horizons. That’s a summary of Juliana Warija’s art piece. She is one of the refugees showcasing their creativity through an art exhibition dubbed ‘Storytelling through Art’ at Design Hub, as part of events to mark World Refugee Day on June 21.
Warija, a 10-year-old refugee from South Sudan, welcomes visitors to her exhibition corner with a smile that illuminates innocence before going ahead to explain to them what her piece is all about.

Her work is part of a showcase by fellow youngsters, all refugees from South Sudan, aged between four and 12 years of age. They were helped to put together their artistic projects by Faces Up Uganda, a youth-led non-government organisation (NGO) that mentors young people.
Each of the refugees has aspiration. Warija’s aspiration is to become a professional footballer, model and painter. She inspired her sister, Shantal Juma, six years, to also paint.

Shantal’s painting depicts flowers, family and women. The duo has been raised by a single mother, in Kasubi, a Kampala suburb.
“I really miss my mother. I take long without talking to her,” says eight-year-old Mene Mark, who fled from Yambio in war-torn South Sudan.
“I enjoy Uganda. It is good and is a safe place. It is not like back in Muniki Block A where gun fires were the order of the day,” adds 14-year-old Rebecca Aya, from the same country.
Guy Gatore from Burundi, fled to Uganda and settled in Nakulabye, another Kampala suburb. With no money to continue with his education, the 21-year-old resorted to art to earn a living.
“Art is my passion. My dream is to find a space in Kampala where I can showcase my artwork and earn some money to fend for my family,” he explains.

Oscar Fridane from DR Congo, paints stories around him, particularly those that touches his heart psychologically and philosophically.
“My inspiration is drawn from the abstract world because in the contemporary moments, we have many ways to express ourselves,” he adds.
Eugene Bitwayiki has passed on the skill of art to his son. He started doing art in 2015. Prior to that, in 2012, he operated a small shop in Kigali, Rwanda, with his wife, where they would sell art work.
“My son makes amazing art. He is a person who can draw amazing portraits of persons by just looking at them once,” he explains.

Daudi Karungi, the main curator of the exhibition, says encouraging artists of any kind helps them discover their potential in future. “For example, when refugees move to a country, they are hopeless about their future but when they settle down and are encouraged, they can excel tremendously. The exhibition is one of the things that encouraged them to appreciate that whatever they do is good and what I did as a curator was to encourage these young people,” Karungi explains.

Mentor. Emmanuel Ssekitto Kalule (with microphone), a visual artist, poses with some of the children he mentors at the exhibition at Design Hub in Kampala last week.

Emmanuel Ssekitto Kalule, a visual artist, has encouraged young South Sudanese refugees through Faces Up Uganda, drawing his passion to support young people from his background as an semi-orphan.

“My mother was understandably trying to make ends meet for our family. She had separated from my father when we were still young and I never had the opportunity to interact with him. I had many talents such as playing football, doing art, acrobatics but I never had someone in my life who could guide to nurture my talent,” he recounts.
When he joined university, he witnessed a number of young people waste their talents and abilities because of lack of a mentor or someone to hold their hands. That inspired him to establish Faces Up Uganda in 2016 to provide a platform where young people can be inspired to do what inspires them.

His experience with youngsters such as Warija has opened his mind to the possibilities in their potential.
“Majority of them have a lot to say but they lack a platform where to say it. Generally, children are so creative and open-minded and are willing to try out something new and freely say out what they want to,” he explains.

In general, Kalule says it was challenging working with children at first because most of them have a low concentration span; playful and wasteful when it comes to materials.
With time, he has learnt how to work with them as individuals, patiently giving them tailored support.
Prosper Songa Wissoba, a refugee from DR Congo, was recognised for his unique talent from the showcase of his artistry at the exhibition. He was not able to attend school and decided to concentrate on polishing his talent as a painter.

“I love doing art because it helps me see beauty and focus on the good things in life,” he says.
To Remy Mongolo, art is a source of satisfaction. “I feel like I am doing something real, something natural. I like to show people and nature in my paintings. I also like to make stories in painting, like a life story,” he adds.

Refugees in Uganda
Displaced. According to the World Bank, Sub-Saharan African countries host the second largest number of refugees in the world, with nearly 6.6 million displaced people as of 2018.
Uganda remains the largest refugee-hosting country in Africa, with more than 1.2 million refugees, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and the Office of the Prime Minister.

The World Bank observes that despite open borders, progressive refugee policies and the support of development organisations and host communities, many refugees still have limited access to services such as education and health care, hindering their ability to develop the skills needed for self-reliance or to contribute to the betterment of their host communities and home countries.