Violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo forced Robert Hakiza and his family to flee their home in 2008. They started a new life in Kampala, Uganda. In 2008, at the age of 25, Robert co-founded YARID, Young African Refugees for Integral Development. YARID brings together refugees living in Kampala’s urban setting to empower other refugees and increase their self-reliance through training, English classes, sports, free education and seminars. Though YARID is dedicated to empowering refugees, it also warmly welcomes local Ugandans.
“Refugees are resourceful: we have ideas and skills that benefit us and the local communities. We want to support other refugees and the Ugandan people we live with” – Robert Hakiza
Can you describe your experience as a refugee living in bustling Kampala. What are some of the challenges you faced as a refugee in urban settings?
When I arrived in Kampala I was lucky to find a community, people who speak my language and who understood me. With time we realised that while we have access to many rights, in practice it is difficult to access these rights when you live in a city. Most of the services are centralised in the camps and settlements. It felt like we, urban refugees, were the forgotten ones. It also became clear to us that in situations where we cannot go back to our home countries, different types of actors need to come in – this includes UN agencies and the private sector. The most important service you can provide a refugee is to create opportunities for them to contribute to the community they live in.
Uganda allows refugees to find legal employment and to set up businesses. Were you able to benefit from this policy?
Many refugees have started small businesses, which doesn’t require a work permit – this is very positive for them. Many refugees who are for qualified for skilled jobs are asked to show a work permit – this costs USD 2000 per year, and most of us cannot afford it. The problem is that employers don’t know the policies; they don’t know that we are allowed to work without a permit. All the information is concentrated at the ministerial level, and there is very little information that trickles down to local level. You can’t expect people to implement policies they are not aware of.
You therefore started your NGO, YARID, to tackle this situation?
Exactly. In 2008 Together with two other refugees living in Kampala I founded called YARID, Young African Refugees for Integral Development, to support urban refugees, create a space for young people to discuss the problems that affect their lives and find solutions together. We used football to bring the youth together. This helped start the discussions and engage the community. Today still, everything we do comes from the community. We want the local population to understand that refugees have skills that can also benefit them, we want to show that we are resourceful and have great ideas and that we want to find ways to live better together. Ugandan locals face many of the same challenges as us, so we are working to jointly to address them.
So the space you have created is open to urban refugees and Ugandan locals alike?
Yes, the approach we are using involves both refugees and local host communities. This is exactly in line with the principles of comprehensive responses for refugees. In Kampala, the majority of refugees live in slums – this is where accommodation and food are the cheapest. Refugees live with the local population and they face the same challenges: like refugees, many Ugandans who live in the slums cannot afford to send their children to school or to eat three meals per day. YARID provides a platform for us to find solutions together.
How is YARID funded?
We are entirely self-funded. Actually it is my role to raise funds (smiles). This is not always easy, and often we cannot forecast the budget for the following month. Even so, there isn’t a day that goes by where we close our doors. I have been working at YARID for five years, without any salary. As long as we have enough to run the offices, we are here. We didn’t start this organization to make money – we want to support other refugees and the Ugandan people we live with.
You are an inspiring example of how refugees can contribute to the local community. Do you have other examples?
There are more than 47,000 urban refugees in Kampala today. They pay for their accommodation, their own food, they are self-sufficient – despite the challenges. Many refugees have started businesses in Kampala. The Congolese are known for creating and selling jewellery and kitenge clothing – a multi-colour fabric typically from Congo that is very popular across east Africa. Now they are exporting to customers as far as Holland, Dubai and China. Burundians are typically good in the shoes and clothes business; Somalis often work in retail shops, forex bureaus and public transport. Many Ethiopians run restaurants and guest houses – they employ local Ugandans and other refugees. Recently I spoke to a Ugandan shop owner in the Gazaland area where there are hundreds of jewellery shops. I asked him how he feels about all the refugees from DR Congo who live and work here. Without a second of hesitation, he simply said “if they were not here, this place would shut down. Congolese are customers, distributors, owners – they are at the heart of the system. They pay taxes in Uganda”. All of these are contributions to our new country.
By Anouck Bronee and Pauline Haupt
Task team on comprehensive responses, UNHCR Geneva
Photo: UNHCR/Pauline Haupt