Face to face with the East Africa Crisis

In May of this year, Chief Advocate Tim Costello met children affected by the East Africa Crisis. In the refugee settlements he visited, he saw human suffering on a scale difficult to comprehend. But he also saw hope and a way forward for those escaping war and hunger.

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It is a gut-wrenching experience to stand among thousands of exhausted, hungry children in rags, driven from their homeland by war and famine. These are the young souls fleeing from South Sudan to refugee settlements across the border in northern Uganda. They come in their hundreds every day, often unaccompanied because they have either seen their parents die or have fled after being separated from their families. They are exhausted and they are hungry. Most have walked for days, sometimes weeks, to reach safety.

About 3.8 million South Sudanese people – at least one-quarter of the entire country’s population – have had to leave their homes since war broke out in December 2013. The UN has warned the conflict in South Sudan could spiral into genocide. In February, it also declared a famine in parts of the country, and while the famine declaration has now been removed in these regions, food insecurity is today affecting 100,000 people and threatening one million more.

Uganda has continued to maintain open borders but this unprecedented mass influx is placing enormous strain on local infrastructure. In fact, one of the refugee settlements I visited – Bidibidi – hosts over 270,000 refugees; more than any other place in the world.

Hope amongst despair

In the settlements, I came face to face with the words of Jesus (found in Matthew 25:35): “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you invited me into your home. In one settlement, I watched as we provided close to 7,000 hot meals to people as they arrived – the first real food they had eaten in days! This was just one example of the love of Jesus being shown to people facing such desperate times.

I also saw firsthand the care and concern being shown to the most vulnerable new arrivals: children. Children make up the highest percentage of new arrivals and they truly bear the brunt of the conflict. World Vision has already registered more than 9,000 unaccompanied children who have arrived in Uganda from South Sudan. With our partners, we have found interim foster care for more than 2,500 unaccompanied minors and helped at least 1,000 separated children re-unite with their relatives.

But as with any unfolding crisis, there will always be more to do. As well as continuing to respond to the needs of the children and families already in the settlements, we know that every day another influx of needy people will pour in, needing just the same. Sadly, the humanitarian response in Uganda continues to face significant challenges due to chronic and severe under-funding. Funding shortfalls affect every part of our response, even down to the rations that we are able to provide hungry people.

Children are grateful for the life-saving food they receive in Uganda’s refugee settlements.

The only way forward

The international community, including generous supporters like you, has a key role to play in saving people from starvation but in the longer term, the answers to South Sudan’s chaos should come from within South Sudan itself. The Church will have to play a key role in that. Church leaders I have met with recognise that their challenge is to transcend violence and tribe and preach the Gospel of peace and reconciliation. It has to be a grass-roots overcoming of ethnic hatred. I believe the support of South Sudanese living in other parts of the world – including Australia – for peace-building initiatives is also critical.

This is a defining moment in the life of the nation of South Sudan and its Christian leaders. I ask that you would pray for them to remain united and committed as they proclaim peace and reconciliation. And please, help us support the children affected by this crisis, whose very lives hang in the balance.

To hear more from Tim Costello, watch his latest video from the Imvepi refugee settlement in Uganda.


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