South Sudan to Uganda: Three girls in search of survival

Lillian (left) and Viola carrying some timber to use to construct a latrine

In the heat of the day, Lillian, Scobia and Viola help each other carry large, heavy pieces of wood from a collection point to the temporary shelter they are trying to make into a home at Imvepi refugee settlement in Uganda. They have been sharing a latrine with neighbours with no place to shower, so today, they will build themselves their own bathroom on their land.

These girls are only 16 years old.

They are from the same village in South Sudan and fled to Uganda together, along with Viola’s eight-year-old brother, but with no adult guardian. 

Three young women inside a temporary shelter
Lillian, Viola and Scobia inside the temporary shelter that is now their home

Viola and her brother had been raised by their uncle. One day last autumn, on his way home he was killed by soldiers, leaving Viola and her brother alone.

They survived for a few months living off the vegetables in their garden, but Viola did not know how to continue cultivating the garden. Eventually, they ran out of food, so they moved in with Scobia and her grandmother, who were neighbours in their village.

Young woman with a sleeping mat
Scobia with a sleeping mat inside the tent that the girls share

Lillian had been living with her older sister, after their parents had died. However, when her sister got married, she left with her husband, leaving Lillian alone. So Lillian also moved in with Scobia.

As the violence in South Sudan got worse, the girls became increasingly worried about their safety. Viola says:

I was afraid that if I stayed in South Sudan, we would get killed just like my uncle.

They also worried that they were missing out on their education as their school was no longer functioning. Viola says:

I wanted to come to Uganda to be safe and get an education, so I can one day get a job and continue taking care of my brother.

With the help of Scobia’s grandmother, the girls packed food and their belongings, and set off for Uganda on foot. During the journey, they would only eat just enough to survive, because they weren’t sure how long they needed the food to last. After walking for seven days, they arrived in Uganda.

Young woman outside a tent
Lillian outside the makeshift tent where she, Viola and Scobia now live

Their sights remain focused on getting back in school. They need clothes, and more food, but most importantly they want to go to school. Lillian says:

School will help me overcome the challenges I am facing. If I have an education, I can get a good job and those challenges will disappear.

Out of the 1.2 million refugees in Uganda, over 700,000 are children under 18, according to UNHCR. Many of those children arrive in Uganda without a parent or guardian. CARE is assisting these unaccompanied children by helping them construct temporary shelters, helping them access psychosocial services through CARE’s counsellors, and providing protection through adult community leaders who help watch over unaccompanied children.

Viola looking out of her tent
Viola at the entrance to her tent

Sometimes a child finds a guardian on the journey to Uganda, or once they arrive in Uganda. Other times a child finds a group of other children and they become each other’s guardians. This is the case with Lillian, Scobia and Viola. These girls have become each other’s family. Viola says: “We do everything together. We collect firewood, fetch water and cook together.”

We also comfort each other when we are sad, or remembering what we have lost in South Sudan. We are sisters.

One of CARE’s priority interventions for South Sudanese refugees in Uganda is to prevent physical, sexual and emotional violence, particularly against women and girls, and to facilitate access to services for survivors of violence. CARE also works with men and boys on “positive masculinity”, learning to collaborate with women and girls.

Protecting girls and women from violence

Delphine Pinault, Country Director for CARE Uganda, explains how CARE is helping girls like Lillian, Scobia and Viola:  “Young girls like these arriving in Uganda alone and fending for themselves are at major risk of violent attacks. They oftentimes arrive already traumatised from violent events that may have occurred on their journey.”

With most of the refugees coming from a culture of violence and conflict, it is critical that we work with the entire community, including men and boys, on adopting more caring and supportive behaviours and on resolving conflicts and differences through dialogue – rather than the fist.

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News and stories are provided by CARE staff working to support our emergency responses and long-term development programmes.