A Trip To Uganda Taught Me How We Can Turn Pain Into Positivity

Photo by Caroline Irby Courtesy Of UNHCR
Warning: The following includes details that some readers may find upsetting.
Last summer, actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw visited a refugee camp in Uganda and it changed her perspective on life for good. Mbatha-Raw, who has had roles in Black Mirror and The Morning Show, works with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency and organisation dedicated to saving lives, protecting rights and building a better future for refugees. While she was there she met a woman named Françoise, who inspired her profoundly.
This week, Global Refugee Forum (an event attended by global leaders and refugees) is holding a meeting on 17th and 18th December – the first of its kind to gather important new pledges for refugees. On the eve of the forum, they are launching a campaign called #EveryoneCounts to counter the negative rhetoric surrounding refugees and focus on the positive impact they have in our communities. 
Read Gugu Mbatha-Raw's essay written during her time in Uganda below...
It was in the retelling of Françoise’s story that the words got stuck in my throat. I exhale but it doesn’t help. More than a day after she’d told me of her journey, I found myself at a blockage. It wedged in my throat and I couldn’t physically say it, as though the articulating of it finally made it real and pass through me too. It tore a piece of me to get it out. Yet Françoise is not broken, she’s one of the most vibrant, uplifting women I’ve ever met and despite everything she has been through she gives back on every level. In an Insta world of digestible soundbites, how do you find the words to describe being violently penetrated with a glass bottle while six months pregnant, losing the baby, your fertility, your home and maybe your mind?
I’m on my second 'mission' with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, having visited Rwanda nine months ago and experiencing first-hand what life is like in refugee camps there. This time I am in Uganda, home to over 1.2 million refugees and with a generous open border policy which is hailed as an example that the rest of the world could learn from.
Today I’m en route to Nakivale settlement, a vast area of land, 50km from end to end, in the southwestern Isingiro district of Uganda. Nakivale hosts 109,000 refugees predominantly from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia and Burundi.  
Looking out over the open fields upon entering the settlement, I see young boys no more than 10 years old herding goats as we pass by what I learn is Nakivale’s only secondary school. With over half of Uganda’s refugee population under 18, the situation here is very much a children’s crisis. Eighty percent of people in Nakivale are under 35 and only 49% of them get to go to school.
Alaeddin, UNHCR’s man on the ground who oversees protection of vulnerable refugees is our guide. Himself originally from Aleppo in Syria, he takes us to the reception centre, the first destination for refugees arriving at Nakivale.
I hear a chorus of children’s voices and am immediately drawn to a small building which I’m told is the primary school. On approaching the door, some 30 small children spontaneously stand up from the floor and start to sing "Welcome, welcome, welcome visitor" in unison… It’s a very moving and unexpected introduction as I realise I’ve probably never felt this welcome in my life.
Photo by Caroline Irby Courtesy Of UNHCR
The school is just one room and with no chairs or desks in sight the children return to their seats, cross-legged on the dusty floor. Uganda is currently hosting a shocking 41,000 unaccompanied and separated refugee children and as I gaze at this sea of beautiful faces, I wonder how many of these children arrived here on their own and what these young eyes have already seen and endured.
The chanting of the lesson efficiently recommences and it is then that I notice the teacher, brightly conducting the class in front of the blackboard. Her smile is warm, her charisma palpable, a pen readily stowed in her cropped Afro hair. With such energy and passion, she has the class in the palm of her hand, me included.
I introduce myself and learn that her name is Françoise and this is her English class. She volunteers as a teacher here three days a week, where the class size typically reaches 80 students. She was a teacher at home in DRC and when I ask if English is her main subject, she reels off the other seven languages she speaks fluently. My jaw drops.
Françoise clearly loves the children and I ask if she has children of her own. She replies no with a sad smile and adds that she arrived here solo just last year. I want to know more about her experience but, aware I’m interrupting the class, I sense that in front of the blackboard is not the right setting to delve any deeper – at least not for now.
Photo by Caroline Irby Courtesy Of UNHCR
We move on to talk about the facilities for the students. Nakivale settlement, like the entire refugee response plan in Uganda, is severely underfunded and the classroom is sparse. No one has a pen or paper in their hands. "I would love some chairs…uniforms…" says Françoise. She points to three students wearing typical school uniform attire: green and white gingham shirts for the boys, indigo dresses with white collars for the girls. "I’m also a tailor," Françoise adds, beaming. "Wait, you made these?" I ask. She nods proudly and, blown away by her commitment, I learn that this dynamic woman makes uniforms for her students on her days off. I cannot help but wonder if this is partly due to a need to fill a sense of loss. 
"I like to keep busy," she adds as the uniformed children are brought to the front of the class to model her designs.
The following day we stop in at the women’s centre, where a young female football team are having a kick-around outside. An exuberant welcome of singing and dancing ushers us into the building. The football girls bring the most daring athletic moves and pull me into the dance. In the melee I find myself moving alongside a familiar figure. "Françoise!" I yell over the singing. Astounded at the coincidence – Nakivale covers a sprawling 71 square miles – "I’m one of the leaders here," she says with a warm hug as she hurries off to assemble some of her students for a dance performance.
During the following few hours Françoise chairs a women’s circle, doubling up as a translator in French, English and Swahili, organises her primary school dance group and generally seems at the centre of the action. Impressed and fascinated, we find a quiet moment to talk one on one.
I ask if she would mind sharing her journey with me. For the first time since meeting, she becomes incredibly still and exhales deeply…
The cascade of heartbreak started at the Rwandan genocide in 1992. Françoise was married to a Tutsi and they had four children together. "My children were 9, 6, 4 and 2, and they cut my 6-year-old son into pieces in front of me and forced me to eat pieces of my own boy." It was here that at six months pregnant she was brutally raped, and sticks and broken bottles were pushed inside her. "Desperately close to death, I was taken to the hospital, bleeding everywhere… They could save me but not my baby, and I’ll never have children again."

I became a madwoman, I was crazy and for a few years after losing all of my family, I lost my senses. But I was finally given support and a counsellor and gradually over time began to rebuild my life.

Françoise, the joyous leader who I met, seemed so at odds with this traumatic devastation. How had she even begun to heal these wounds?
"I became a madwoman, I was crazy and for a few years after losing all of my family, I lost my senses. But I was finally given support and a counsellor and gradually over time began to rebuild my life."
She got a job as a health promoter with Médecins Sans Frontières, using her experience to counsel other women who were victims of domestic violence and rape.
This would have been enough tragedy for many lifetimes but Françoise’s resilience doesn’t end there. After several years of a relatively peaceful and purposeful life as a counsellor, another epic fight for survival hit just two years ago. "I was travelling in a vehicle with other work colleagues. Rebels shot at the car. My boss was killed immediately. Another woman and I were taken blindfolded and forced to walk and walk until we came to the middle of a forest." There she lived with the rebels as a virtual sex slave for a month. "I was raped on a daily basis."
What struck me was not just the brutality of each event but also the layers of trauma, compounded over decades.
It is when Françoise speaks of the rain that the poetry of hope enters her voice and lights her eyes. "Then one day the rain started really pouring down, it poured and poured and poured. We were out fetching water, and the men who were overseeing us ran back to the camp because they were getting soaked. We saw this as our chance. We were naked with just a cloth across us but we ran and ran in the rain. We just kept running."
Athletic to this day, I’ve seen Françoise nimbly dancing and playing ball with 7-year-olds. Her energy is infectious, and it was her pure survival instinct and muscle memory that ignited in that moment. "When I was at school, I did long-distance running, and I felt my body wanting to escape, to create distance between the rebels and myself. We ran all day and at night we climbed trees and slept there. We ran for three days like this, sleeping in trees." It was then that they were found by a tribe of Central African foragers who sheltered and clothed them until they could make it to a hospital, an imagined place of safety, "but the rebels came to the hospital looking for us. We were given a small amount of money by the volunteers at the hospital to escape and find refuge in Uganda."
Photo by Caroline Irby Courtesy Of UNHCR
Françoise made it to Nakivale settlement in June 2018, and in that short time she is not only teaching and leading her community, she is also fostering a young woman called Paula from Burundi and is excitedly making room in her small house to accommodate another foster daughter. I ask myself, where does she find such capacity for kindness, when she’s been through so much herself?
As she shows me around her kitchen and the allotment where she grows vegetables, surrounded by all this new growth, I am wowed by her resilience and reminded of the immense human capacity for renewal and new life.

Françoise and numerous other female refugees just like her have endured unthinkable pain. What seems remarkable to me is not only that she has survived but that she has launched herself into a new life.

Françoise and numerous other female refugees just like her have endured unthinkable pain. What seems remarkable to me is not only that she has survived but that she has launched herself into a new life. Motivated to help and support others to survive – even thrive – by teaching children, working with other women, running groups and fostering some of the huge numbers of unaccompanied children.
Refugees like Françoise have so much resilience when fleeing war and conflict but critically need help. She found psychosocial support and then a community in Uganda where she is able to pour her energy into making a positive impact.
On the eve of the Global Refugee Forum UNHCR is hosting, we stand at a pivotal moment in history to find commitments and support that will help every refugee – and the communities they are living in - not just to survive but to thrive. UNHCR works to protect and support refugees all over the world but this cannot be done alone. Everyone has a role to play in supporting refugees to access education, find work, live safely and achieve their dreams. Everyone counts, every voice, every action can make a difference. We all have a part to play. #EveryoneCounts

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