Names and identifying information have been excluded.
Ten years ago, a young African man began to worship with us at Campbelltown Uniting Church. His presence opened up new opportunities for broadening our experiences, establishing new relationships, presenting new challenges and for making a difference.
He had lost many family members in the conflict that has existed over decades in Burundi, an African country that has carried the burden of consistently being rated the least happy country in the world. (World happiness Report, Sustainable Development Solutions Network)
Arriving in Australia on a humanitarian visa he learned that he had siblings who had survived the fighting, and who were living as refugees in Uganda. He subsequently became aware that many more Burundian refugees were struggling to survive in Kampala, and the responsibility he felt broadened to include all members of that refugee community. Uganda generously welcomes refugees (even though many Ugandans are themselves struggling), but those Burundians who choose to live outside the UNHCR refugee camps and to exist as urban refugees learn that securing accommodation, food and employment is very difficult, sometimes impossible.
The young man was given accommodation by one of our church families, and this allowed him to support refugees in that community from his allowance as he pursued his university studies here. Then began a grassroots activity within our congregation as members, learning of the plight of these refugees in Uganda, spontaneously began to give donations towards their wellbeing. What began as an informal support movement is now a formal activity of Campbelltown UnitingCare, our body that has oversight of our congregation’s outreach activities, within Australia and beyond.
We are very fortunate to have had financial resources that, strengthened by generous donations from within our congregation, allow us to support 38 children at school in 2019, to fund a medical centre staffed by Burundian doctors who are themselves refugees, to establish a micro-loan scheme to enable refugees to start their own small businesses, and to assist some widows with rent payments for themselves and their children.
That simple summary is incomplete if we do not qualify it.
- We are grateful that we have enabled children to obtain their school education, but they are very few compared to the estimated 2,000 refugee children who are members of this Burundian community in Uganda, most of whom do not go to school.
- The medical centre is possible due to the generosity of the Bethesda Medical Centre in Kampala, that provides a consultation room and reception facilities without charge. We appreciate their generous support.
- An essential benefit of this medical service is that refugee patients can speak to doctors in their own language. Burundians speak Kirundi and French. Ugandans speak English and their own regional language.
- Burundian refugees are given medical consultations at no charge, but the additional amount we provide each month for tests, scans, further therapies and medications is simply not enough. It is distressing for doctors when they are able to diagnose but do not have the resources to offer treatment.
- Our financial reserves will run down to the point where, in a few years, we will have to greatly reduce the level of support we can offer. The funding for micro-loans that we can provide, and that will give individual refugees financial independence through running their own businesses, assumes a greater importance.
Supported and inspired by the young man who has become a valued member of our congregation, an organisation has been established by the Burundian community in Kampala. The Refugee Life Support Network (RLSN) exists to further the welfare of that community, and is a registered organisation within Uganda. It focuses on health, education, employment and other areas of life that are critical for their welfare.
While we describe these people as a community, this means only that they have a common heritage and common difficulties. They live wherever they can around the large city of Kampala.
We are grateful that we are able to transfer all funds directly to the refugees’ own organisation without any administration costs, other than the expenses necessarily involved in transferring funds internationally. All work, in Australia and Uganda, is performed by volunteers. The effectiveness of our donations is maximised. We are now working towards becoming a Designated Gift Recipient (DGR) for our overseas support activities, which will allow our donors to obtain tax-deductibility.
Some of us have visited Kampala, and have been warmly welcomed. We are reminded that financial gifts are only a part of our relationship. The RLSN coordinator wrote a couple of years ago to acknowledge that we can never resolve all their problems –
“All that is possible is all that can be. We know that you love us.”
The knowledge that the people of Campbelltown Uniting Church, half a world away, care about them is a powerful motivator and a reassurance that Christ’s love reaches even them.
You may have wondered why no names have been used in this article. This is because refugees, even outside the country from which they fled, are sometimes still fearful. Those asylum seekers who eventually find a secure home in a third country, such as Australia, say that the greatest feeling in their new, permanent homeland is of relief and security – they and their children are now safe.
Our objective is to put in place an ongoing and expanding level of life-changing assistance. Even though our cash reserves will run out, we want to develop a continuation strategy, not an exit strategy. Our faith requires no less of us.
These people in Kampala obviously represent only part of a wider need. The Nakivale Refugee Camp, 300 km from Kampala, is the only home that many refugees of Burundian and other nationalities know. How do we choose which causes we will support?
In our case, we believe it was not our choice. We are privileged to be able to assist people who are disadvantaged, as a response of the People of God to the gifts and tasks God has laid upon us. We feel blessed and are grateful to have been led to that opportunity. We hope that others will walk alongside us, and increase the difference we can make.
With our ability to provide financial support likely to diminish in two to three years, we must immediately advise the refugee community that no more children can be added to our scholarship program. This will take away any reason for the hope that many refugee families continue to hold that at some point their children will be given a basic education.
However, once we are able to offer tax-deductibility to donors, we will look towards creating a sponsorship program. The opportunity to support a refugee child at school might be seen as an avenue for people to contribute in a small way to a solution to the world’s overwhelming refugee problem.
In the face of an impending reduction in the scale of our support, is this a cause in which you as an individual, or your church community, would like to walk alongside us?
For more information, contact Colin here.
Colin Elliott is the Chairperson of Campbelltown Uniting