Uganda hosts close to 1.3 million refugees, the majority coming from South Sudan. Others are fleeing from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Somalia, Burundi and several other countries. The Palabek Refugee Settlement is currently home to 34,000 people. It was officially set up in April 2016 to reduce congestion in larger refugee camps in the northwestern corner of Uganda. Several agencies are involved in providing food and education within Palabek.
Earning money and developing a livelihood after fleeing their home country with little to nothing is challenging for refugees. In one of the settlements, women work smashing stones. Alberto Lopez from the Salesian Missions office in Madrid, Spain who is working at Palabek, notes, “They work from dawn to dusk to earn a little more money, because they came on their own, fleeing the war in South Sudan, or with small families. They thus received less land—only the house and not the land to cultivate—and are forced to this exploitation to survive.”
Salesian missionaries are hoping to change that with the new vocational school, which offers young refugees courses for free. Depending on the discipline, some courses will run for 3-6 months while others will run as long as a year. Salesian missionaries have also set up a job placement office that will help students make contact with companies that are hiring, prepare resumes and prep for interviews, and find internships and on-site training opportunities.
The vocational school currently has 450 students, 400 of whom are refugees and 50 of whom are host community Ugandans. The majority of students are young women and mothers who are finally having an opportunity to learn a skill. They are taking courses in tailoring, cosmetology and salon services such as hair dressing. Young men are learning automobile mechanics and motorcycle repair training. Agriculture classes are taught to all students no matter their primary area of study.
Salesian missionaries at the settlement are also offering much-needed psycho-social support and pastoral care for thousands of Christian residents. In addition, the vocational training center, like the four nursery schools and nine primary schools operated by Salesian missionaries at Palabek, offers a food program so students are ensured one hot meal a day.
Salesian missionaries arrived at the Palabek Refugee Settlement in June 2017. At the start, the precariousness of the situation forced Salesian missionaries to live in huts with the refugees. Eventually, they built simple rooms, sanitation and water facilities, small structures for gatherings, and various chapels and schools for children.
Close to 67 percent of Ugandans are either poor or highly vulnerable to poverty, according to UNICEF. While the country has seen some economic growth as well as improvement in its Human Development Index ranking over the last 20 years, the country still ranks near the bottom at 163 out of 188 countries. After decades of war left many displaced, the people of Uganda face many significant challenges as they work to rebuild their country.
Uganda’s literacy rate has improved with 73 percent of the population literate but only 23 percent of Ugandans go on to acquire a secondary education. According to UNICEF, one of the biggest challenges in the country is combating the serious increase of HIV/AIDS that has left millions of children orphaned.