Refugee reintegration: The Journey of Safali Libia in Uganda

Safali Libia in his home farm at Kyangwali refugee settlement. PHOTOS/ LYDIA FELLY AKULLU

What you need to know:

  • This journey of reintegration stands as a testament to the indomitable spirit of individuals seeking refuge and the collaborative efforts of various stakeholders dedicated to providing unwavering support for their assimilation into host communities.

In the intricate tapestry of life, woven with the threads of resilience and adaptation, refugees often find themselves facing a herculean task during their reintegration into mainstream society. Uganda’s urban centers, like the capital Kampala beckon with promise, but for those emerging from the cocoon of refugee camps, even seemingly simple tasks become towering challenges - crossing bustling highways, navigating markets, and sharing hostel rooms with strangers.

This journey of reintegration stands as a testament to the indomitable spirit of individuals seeking refuge and the collaborative efforts of various stakeholders dedicated to providing unwavering support for their assimilation into host communities.
Safali Libia, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, is a case in point. Although not born in Kyangwali refugee camp, he ended up there, with his family at a young age. As an adult, he sought further education and moved out. However, reintegrating into Ugandan society posed challenges, including cultural adjustments, educational gaps, and social stigma accompanying the transition.

The decision to step out into the unfamiliar territory of Ugandan society was not without its tribulations. Cultural adjustments, yawning educational gaps, and the burden of social stigma cast long shadows over his transition. Libia's odyssey, however, encapsulates the universal struggle of straddling two worlds - preserving one's cultural heritage while navigating the uncharted waters of new norms.
"The situation is not always easy because you meet people for the first time living totally differently. The standards of living, the language, culture, finances - it’s always hard," Mr Libia said. 

Even as he pursued a Bachelor of Arts in Economics at Makerere University under the Mastercard Foundation scholars programme, the shadow of discrimination hovered around him. Graduation, a beacon of accomplishment, is tinged with the bitter taste of prejudice.
"You meet people from different backgrounds. When you introduce yourself and say you are from a certain country, it adds some value and respect to you because they see you as an international person. When you mention that you are a refugee, even the person that had respected you for the first time, starts seeing you as vulnerable there and then. You end up feeling too small," Mr Libia said. 
Language, a bridge connecting hearts and social life, becomes another barrier for Libia. The linguistic heritage of Kinyarwisha and Kiswahili, spoken in the camp, stands in stark contrast to the unfamiliar tongues of his new surroundings. 

"As a refugee, you enter an area where there is a language barrier. You don’t know any of the local languages, and when you use English only, they start thinking that you are bragging around," Mr Libia said.
The social fabric, woven with the threads of friendship and camaraderie, proves elusive for Libia in the vast expanse outside the camp. He reveals the challenges of forming connections in a world that often values socioeconomic status over shared humanity.
"When you reach campus, people want to interact with those adding value to them. They want to befriend kids from rich families, but as a refugee, it became very difficult for me unless those who felt empathy," Mr Libia said.

Safali Libia attending leadership session of the mastercard foundation scholars programme at Makerere University

Academic pursuits, a beacon of hope for many, becomes a far cry.
While peers contemplate the intricacies of coursework, Libia’s thoughts are tethered to challenges back home - the people he could be supporting, the problems, the local issues. The education---foreign in nature--- becomes an additional hurdle, laden with the complexities of language, content, and teaching styles foreign to his experience.

Libia, with the weight of additional studies on his shoulders, continued to thread his way through the intricacies of coursework. He got a retake in his final year at the university, which added to his agony.

“While people are thinking about academics, some of us (refugees) spend time thinking about other challenges at home. The people we could be supporting, the problems, local issues, among others. Also the concept of different curriculums. We are introduced to education that is foreign which is somehow difficult, given the language, the content, and even the style of teaching,” Mr Libia said.

Arthur Musombwa Masimango, a community leader and programme manager with the Congolese Refugee Community in Uganda, in a telephone interview with this reporter, sheds light on the unique challenges of refugee settlements some which involve communication.

"The settlement is different from Kampala. In Kampala, there are many opportunities, but if you are getting settlement in Kampala, it will be very difficult because there is a language barrier," Mr Masimango said. 
Bureaucratic barriers, like an invisible web, entangle the lives of refugees in modern societies. Letters of recommendation, akin to golden tickets, become prerequisites for accessing essential services - banking, education and health, among others.

“The protection (letters of recommendations) have to be got in their camps for them to access almost every service, be it banking, education, and even health. Their lives become very difficult,” Mr Masimango said.
In the face of these challenges, there is a glimmer of optimism. The government, taking positive strides, is recognized for its efforts. However, Mr Masimango urges for equal opportunities, especially for the children of refugees born or raised in camps.

"They could use some help when the time comes for them to reintegrate into outside societies. Local integration. They should also get quality education," Mr. Masimango said.
Safali Libia, in a stirring call to action, pleads for equal opportunities in the employment sector and extensive psychosocial support. 
"After school, we don’t know relatives. I would only call for equal rights, to be sure I am getting employment somewhere after school like any other normal person," Mr. Libia said.

Libia's voice, rising above the cacophony of challenges, aspires to be a beacon. His story, a nuanced narrative of hurdles and triumphs, seeks to illuminate the collective consciousness, fostering understanding and compassion. In his quest to contribute meaningfully to the society he now calls home, Safali Libia emerges not just as an individual but as a symbol of resilience, embodying the untapped potential that lies within every refugee striving for a brighter tomorrow.

Uganda, Africa' s largest refugee host, provides refuge to over 1.5 million people, according to UNHCR. Most refugees come from South Sudan (57%), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (32%), Somalia (3%), and Burundi (3%).