How hope, despair live side by side for exiles

The Eritrean community in Kabalagala recently popped eyes when they unveiled brick and mortar church estimated to have cost Shs4b. PHOTO | STEPHEN OTAGE

What you need to know:

  • Kampala City’s suburb of Kabalagala is a melting pot of Ethiopian, Eritrean and even Somali refugees. Whereas many of them have made themselves comfortable, most of them live whilst looking over their shoulder.

To those who chance upon Ephrem Kefelew in the Kampala suburb of Kabalagala, he is just another Ethiopian refugee. But the backstory to how Kefelew ended up in Uganda’s capital is the stuff movies are made of. 

In 2020, Covid-19 was starting to force many people to live reclusive lives when Kefelew left Ethiopia’s capital of Addis Ababa for the market town of Moyale that squats on the border of Ethiopia and Kenya.

Kefelew was determined to register as a refugee in Kenya. The process, however, didn’t turn out to be as straightforward as he expected. He found himself with the prospect of having to pay a bribe or risk detention. Cash-strapped and weary, he had to summon his remaining reserve of energy after fellow Ethiopians at the refugee camp advised him to get in touch with two Ethiopian contacts in Kampala.

The Ethiopians, Kefelew was told, assisted a bunch of Ethiopians in a near identical position as his. Like them, he hoped to find documentation to fly to Canada after settling in Kampala. So, in February of 2020, he boarded a Kampala-bound bus through Malaba border. 

When he reached Kisenyi bus terminal, the contacts he had been given instructed him to jump onto a boda-boda and alight from Kansanga. His new hosts first advised him to report to Old Kampala Police Station to get registered as an asylum seeker.

When he went there, police registered his details and after three months, he got his refugee identity card. To date, as an urban refugee, Kefelew runs an electronics repair shop in Kabalagala. The business is so good that he is now entertaining plans of bringing his two daughters and wife to the Kampala suburb that is widely viewed as something of a red light district.

Kabalagala is a melting pot of Ethiopian, Eritrean and even Somali refugees. Kefelew’s close friend is Eritrean. He asked that the fake name Joules Ahmed be used to reference him for security reasons. Ahmed left Eritrea for Kampala in 2010. Unlike his friend, he has never registered as a refugee and, therefore, moves with no form of identification. He claims attempts to acquire documentation nearly ended up with him being deported.

Fleeing Eritrea

Like most of his compatriots in Kansanga, Ahmed fled his native country because he was not amenable to undergoing mandatory military training. The training takes place both during wartime and peacetime. He says many Eritreans end up in the suburb because those who first came to Uganda in the mid-2000s kept waxing lyrical about the opportunities available in Kansanga.

“In Eritrea, if you join the military service and you want to leave, you are jailed. I do not know how many Eritreans are in jail. We have jails everywhere. I came through the border with Ethiopia, to Sudan, South Sudan, Juba and then Kampala,” Ahmed recalls.

“When you go to the police, they ask you between $100 (Shs363,000) and $300 (Shs1.1m) to get asylum papers. Sometimes when we pay the money, we are given fake documents and identity cards from Nasser Road and you only realise that they are fake when you present them to the necessary offices for services,” he added.

Running scared

Because they lack documentation, Eritrean refugees are targets of conmen, who prowl the streets of Kabalagala and Kansanga. Ahmed says Eritreans do not trust Ugandans because one is only a heartbeat away from being kidnapped. Once that happens, ransom demands are issued. Ahmed estimates that there are nearly 10,000 Eritreans in Uganda. Most of them live whilst looking over their shoulder.

“All the Eritreans living in Kampala are hiding in the shops run by friends in Kabalagala,” he says, adding: “There is an old woman who is living in a single room with five children. She cannot afford to buy food for the children.” 

When Sunday Monitor tried to independently verify these claims, we got two confirmations. One was from an Eritrean woman—Recho. 

Recho said Eritreans are severally picked up from Kabalagala by unknown people. Unsurprisingly, the Eritreans prefer to be tightly knit.

“I can give you information, but I do not want to see my photo anywhere,” Recho’s boyfriend—an Iraqi—says, adding, almost sternly: “Neither do I want my name to appear anywhere.” 

Recho’s boyfriend first set foot in Uganda in 2000 when he was aged just 17. He has never left Uganda since then. He describes Ugandans as being hospitable, but finds it odd that people like him remain undocumented. He claims that after spending five years in Uganda, he should have been given Ugandan citizenship. Now, whenever he has a brush with the law, he has to rely on the International Organisation of Migration.

William Kato, the Crown Arcade landlord, says he finds Eritreans a good sport. The clients who rent space in his property run boutiques, coffee shops, local food restaurants, grocery shops, and mobile phone shops.

Financial muscle?

The growth of Ethiopians in Kabalagala and Kansanga can be told through their faith. Rev Archimandrite Constantine Mbonabingi, the vicar of the Holy Metropolis of Kampala, says when Eritreans first settled in Uganda in the early 2000s, they approached the Orthodox Church about the prospect of getting space for them to fellowship. Metropolitan Jonah Lwanga (RIP) gave them a classroom in Namungoona. But within six months, the classroom was too small to accommodate them. Another classroom was added. That too became too small a space. Inevitably, they were offered land at Lubya hill to build their own church. 

The Eritrean community in Kabalagala recently popped eyes when they unveiled brick and mortar of a church estimated to have cost Shs4b. The money was collected among themselves. Tesfalem Gherahtu, the coordinator of the community activities, says they are planning to build primary and secondary schools to educate their children, who have been born in Uganda.

OPM response

Asked why Eritrean refugees are allegedly not given protection like other refugees, Douglous Asiimwe, the commissioner for refugees in the Office of the Prime Minister, says the protection of Eritreans is guaranteed even as they process their asylum. He adds that the asylum process is open, although there might be some delays due to the number of applicants and the limited staffing. He advises Eritreans to register with the police Crime Intelligence Desk, which specifically handles refugees.

The desk, which was previously at Old Kampala police, has since been moved to a specialised police building in Mengo.

“You never know there could be wrong elements within the police, who ask for the money, but the whole process is transparent,” Asiimwe said.

During her visit to the Institute for Social Transformation at the Children and Youth Office Archdiocese of Kampala, Sarah Hendrinks—the head of programme, policy and intergovernmental division at UN Women—admitted to the problem that female refugees face. 

Hendrinks urged the Ugandan government to open markets and also create mechanisms that allow refugee women to trade freely so as to support their children and families.

Asked why they are not helping the Eritreans access services like they do with others, Moureen Wagubi—the executive director of the Institute for Social Transformation—said efforts to engage Somali, Eritrean and Ethiopian refugees are ongoing. She, however, adds that they find these communities closed.


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