I write these lines from Adjumani, one of the largest refugee settlements in Africa and not far from the border of South Sudan. The region here has seen a regular influx of refugees for decades, dating back to early 1990s, with most recent groups coming in just a few years ago as the civil war in South Sudan made people run south to Uganda for safety. The conditions here are tough: high heat, limited water, few schools, overburdened health centres and a general sense of purposelessness makes life unimaginably harsh for refugees. In this chaos, government agencies, faith-based organisations and NGOs, many are doing their best, but coordination among them continues to be a challenge. In protracted crises, there are issues that go beyond immediate humanitarian needs of shelter, water and vaccination. Issues of non-communicable diseases like diabetes, cancer and mental health pose new challenges that everyone seems to be unprepared for. Disabled refugees have an even harder time and parents of young children who should be in school often see no reason to send them there.
The refugee crisis is real, but so are the hopes and aspirations of those who are here in Adjumani. These people did not choose to become refugees — they left their homes not because life in a refugee camp is a utopian adventure. They left because they were forced to flee to save their lives, and of those around them. What I saw here is similar to what has been observed elsewhere. When given the opportunity, refugees would work hard, and do so with dignity and integrity. Studies show that they add to the economy and increase productivity. This is true in Europe, the US, the Middle East and in Uganda.
As I walked through the camps in Adjumani with my students from Boston — who are here, along with their Ugandan peers, to understand the complex challenges faced by refugees and will work on designing better solutions — I thought of two places. The first is where I live — the US. The toxic and hateful rhetoric of the current US administration about those who seek safety and shelter, represents a low point of humanity. I hope that my students who will go back to the US will be a voice for the voiceless, not just for the south Sudanese but also those who are at the south of the US border.
The other place I thought of, as I walked through the camps, was Pakistan. The recent rhetoric, in the public sphere and social media, about Afghan refugees is disgusting. When a game of cricket between Pakistan and Afghanistan becomes a reason to label every refugee as a terrorist, or a vile ungrateful person, it shows who we have become as a people. There is no denying that there are important questions, and topics of national security to be discussed, and long-term questions need to be debated with rigour and empathy, but if acts of single individuals describe the entire community, we should be ready to accept that Osama bin Laden represents all Muslims, or a serial rapist in Kasur represents every Pakistani. When sports celebrities use poisonous language against refugees, they just unmask their racism. When people call refugees ‘namak haram’ they forget that we too live on foreign support and foreign aid.
People can choose what they would like to remember. But my memories of Afghans in my neighbourhood are of those who made an honest living as a shopkeeper, as a vendor of incredibly tasty French fries in the market and as the fruit vendor down the street. Refugees, whether they are in Pakistan or Peru, Uganda or the US, deserve empathy and their challenges require solutions that are rooted in ethics and sustainability. Scapegoating them for our own dysfunction is not a sign of patriotism — it is the textbook definition of xenophobia.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 9th, 2019.