Mac students learn about global refugee crisis in Ugandan camp

Julia Makayova ’18 and Ari Hymoff ’17 witnessed the global refugee crisis firsthand when they spent this past summer working at a refugee camp in Uganda. Over the course of their time there, they collaborated with the American Refugee Committee, local grassroots organizations and refugees themselves to develop a plan to improve the lives of future generations. Hymoff spent the previous summer with three other Mac students at a camp for Burundian refugees in Rwanda. He and Makayova planned to return to that camp this summer, but discovered a week before their scheduled departure that they were being rerouted to another camp in Uganda. They arrived at the camp in early June and spent their first month living in a guesthouse with other staff and volunteers. “That was the first time I was in a refugee settlement and I was prepared for more of a camp setting, and I was surprised with how well-lived everything felt,” Makayova recalled.

Hymoff, too, immediately picked up on the differences between the refugee camps: “In Rwanda, the camp was four or five months old because people were fleeing directly from the crisis that was evolving in Burundi. The people in the settlement that we went to had been there for close to twenty years. Most of the young people had been born there and that’s all they know. The physical aspect in Rwanda was white tent after white tent after white tent, but here, people get plots of land and there are house structures with banana trees and cassava everywhere.”

Though they had spent weeks developing a plan tailored to the camp in Rwanda, Hymoff and Makayova quickly realized that a new plan was necessary. The camps were simply too different. They spent their first month in Uganda doing interviews, focus groups and activities, getting to know the camp and understand the problems, all while developing a plan to improve the lives of future generations.

“In the end we connected dots around businesses in the settlements and identified that there was a lot of need for people to go beyond subsistence. There were a lot of things that people needed money for, like school supplies and clothing, which they couldn’t raise just from farming, and simultaneously there were a lot of businesses that were stagnating because they did not have enough customers,” said Makayova. “We got interested in this gap in between.”

In order to bridge this gap, they developed an alternative money system, where business members would be able to join a network and receive a complimentary currency. Coming up with this plan required a willingness to stray outside of their comfort zones and work closely with the refugee population. “Neither of us have any background in economics, so we really had to embrace this idea of trying to figure out what the problem is and then finding the solution that we think is best, and we were seeing that we needed to work with business and economic stuff,” said Makayova. She stayed at the camp for a total of two months, and Hymoff remained for an additional month in order to make sure their plan was ready for implementation.

Both Hymoff and Makayova learned valuable lessons about the world of humanitarian aid during their time in Uganda. “The immediate thing that stuck out for me was navigating the world of aid and trying to figure out how to do things efficiently and also finding the right pace at which you have to do things,” said Makayova. Hymoff agreed that bureaucracy provided a challenge: “Based on our methodology, the process is rapid, but that’s not how things happen, especially when you’re dealing with bureaucracy. We constantly faced walls.”

They also came to understand the struggles inherent in the constant uncertainty that refugees face. “When we were there, they were trying to resettle 500 families to the US. And so 500 families could very easily be 2000 people. It’s on people’s minds, almost with a detrimental effect in that people don’t know about the future, and it’s hard to plan for the future if it’s unknown,” Hymoff explained.

They remain in close communication with their partners at the camp, and hope to return either over winter break or next summer. The plan is almost ready for implementation: the notes are printed, the leadership is being set up and the proposal is being finalized with local government. “It’s incredible to see that what we did will grow and is something that can work,” Hymoff concluded. “That’s really powerful.”