South Sudan refugees

Journey with Caritas to meet people living Uganda refugee camps.
We revisit South Sudanese refugees 18 months after they arrived to see how Caritas has helped them start new lives in Uganda.

South Sudan descended into civil war in 2013, two years after the end of its decades-long war for independence from Sudan.

A third of its 12 million population has fled their homes.

In January 2017 we met South Sudan refugees who are living in Bidi Bidi in Uganda. 18 months later we’ve returned to the refugee camp to see the difference Caritas programmes are making to people who live there.


Story by Patrick Nicholson, photos by Tommy Trenchard.

Drag the slider to see the difference 18 months has made to Malis Joseph and baby Flora

Escape from South Sudan

“Bullets were cutting branches off the trees,” Malis Joseph recalled. It was the first he knew his village in South Sudan was under attack.

“The soldiers set fire to our houses. My brother and his wife were killed.”

Malis knew the time had come to save his family. That same day, he piled fifty members of his extended family (including baby Flora, pictured) into a truck and headed south for the Ugandan border. He was one of two million people forced to flee the country after a wave of violence in 2016.

Caritas gave him tools, seeds and training. He says:

“To people who have given money and support, may Almighty God bless you for taking care of refugees, without your help we would have been nowhere.”

Flourishing crops in Bidi Bidi

Bidi Bidi is Uganda’s largest refugee camp, home to over 285,000 people, where Caritas is working to help those who fled neighbouring South Sudan.

But in 2016, the camp was 100 square miles of dust, rocks and trees.

Within weeks of South Sudanese refugees arriving, Caritas teams in Bidi Bidi had distributed 10,000 hand tools for farming and 10,000 tonnes of vegetable seeds, reaching 3,600 refugee households (around 12,600 people).

In giving out seeds, the aim was for the refugees to be able to add quantity, variety and better nutrition to their food handouts.

Instead of surviving on just cornmeal, beans and oil, they could grow okra, cowpeas, eggplants, tomato, onions, cabbage, maize and groundnuts.

Malis Justin, another refugee from South Sudan, arrived in Bidi Bidi in October 2016. Shortly afterwards Caritas gave him okra seeds and tools.

With the money he made from selling his first crop of okra, Malis was able to buy new sandals for his children, along with some fish to add protein to their diet.

Drag the slider to see how much Malis Justin’s crops have grown in 18 months
Malis from South Sudan planted okra seeds gievn to him by Caritas UgandaMalis Justin, a 32 year old refugee from South Sudan, photographed at his new home in Bidibidi refugee camp in northern Uganda.
Drag the slider to see much Malis’ daughter, Tabu Ruth, has changed in 18 months
South Sudanese refugee Tabu Ruth brings water to her father, Malis Justin, 30, outside the family’s new home in Bidi Bidi camp.Tabu Ruth, a South Sudan refugee, in 2018

Longing for peace in South Sudan

Malis Justin was separated from his wife and youngest child during the fighting in South Sudan. But they were reunited in the camp in 2017.

Malis says he is grateful for the help he’s received at Bidi Bidi.

“I have my wife back, the children are in school. I’m able to farm and sell vegetables to support the children and help out my neighbours,” he said.

But all he wishes for is an end to the fighting in South Sudan so that he can return.

“Home is home, every minute of every day one thinks ‘when will I go home?’,” he says.

“Being a refugee is like being in prison – you are prevented from all you are aspiring to get.”

“It’s not good to be a refugee,” he adds. “It is not a choice. You’re labelled a refugee and that’s you, full stop.”

Bidi bidi refugee camp: from dusty plain…

…to a home for thousands

A landscape transformed

Youssef Gule, a Ugandan farmer who lives nearby to Bidi Bidi refugee settlement, photographed in a cassava field.

Youssef Gule, a Ugandan farmer who lives nearby to Bidi Bidi refugee settlement, photographed in a cassava field.

Bidi Bidi is Uganda’s largest refugee camp. It is home to over 285,000 people. But it wasn’t always like this.

Romana Candia, a Caritas worker, says that at first the UNHCR struggled to deal with the crisis because there was poor sanitation, no shelter, no crops or roads and a huge demand for water.

“It was a terrible sight to see families sleeping in small tents and small grass huts that you couldn’t even stand up in, she said.

“Caritas had nothing to start with, not even a building to work from.”

The impact of humanitarian aid in Bidi Bidi is now visible in the neat houses, green gardens and bustle on the streets. The local economy has boomed too for the Ugandans.

“I’m happy to see the progress we have made in Bidi Bidi,” said Romana. “The shelters are good. People are dignified. Crops and food are growing around. We call the refugees by their names and they call us by our names.”

Caritas training to help refugees now, and long into the future

Caritas Uganda has helped people by giving sanitary pads, education about nutrition and mosquito nets to combat widespread malaria. In addition, they run training programmes for farmers and vocational skills courses for young people.

Below are the stories of some of the people who have received support and training from Caritas.

Jackie South Sudan has benefited from tailoring training thanks to a Caritas skills programme.

Jackie is learning tailoring skills

Jackie – tailor

Jackie Sitima is a 24-year-old refugee.

Her husband was kidnapped by an armed group and, she believes, forced to fight in South Sudan. She lives with her father and two daughters, aged six and four.

Jackie attended tailoring workshops and became part of a group of four women who wanted to start a business.

Given a sewing machine and a loan, they opened a shop selling handmade clothes.

Jackie plans to diversify into making reusable sanitary pads.

“When I do go back to South Sudan I will bring with me the skills I have learned to build a better life,” she says.

Soro Steward, 32, a South Sudanese refugee and field officer for Caritas, inspects tomato plants at a farmer field school in Bidibidi refugee camp in Uganda.

Soro is helping other farmers

Soro – university student

A refugee from South Sudan, Soro Stewart, 32, lost both parents to disease before fleeing the violence to Uganda in 2016.

In South Sudan he worked for Caritas on food security, supporting farmer groups to grow vegetables. In Bidi Bidi, Soro continues his work as a field officer helping farmers.

“My role is to make sure farmer groups are organised. We train them on leadership skills and group dynamics,” he says.

“I feel very glad to be able to help the refugees,” he added. “We share the same background and the same situation. I’m able to build relationships with them.”

Caritas is also paying for Soro to take weekend courses in development studies at the University of Arua.

Martin Waru, 42, from South Sudan went to a caritas-supported Farmers Field School, where he learned new agricultural technical skills.

Martin has attended the Caritas Farmers Field School

Martin – farmer

Martin Waru is one of the farmers who Soro Stewart has worked with. He lives with his wife and nine children in a rocky part of Bidi Bidi that is difficult to farm.

“As well as receiving tools and seeds, I went to a Caritas-supported Farmers’ Field School, where I learned agricultural technology,” he said. “I learned how to maximise the land that I have. I learned about the different crops, about irrigation and about raising livestock.”

Martin also set up a savings group with the support of Caritas and now he and his friends have invested in goats and chickens.

“With all the profits from my garden and from our group, I’ve been able to buy three mattresses, four goats that have reproduced to make nine, set up a carpentry workshop and bought a motorbike,” he says.

Great need at neighbouring Palorinya camp

Refugees from South Sudan are still arriving at Uganda’s border, mostly on foot, tired and hungry, carrying children and a few household goods.

Near Bidi Bidi is another camp, Palorinya, which is Uganda’s second largest refugee camp with 165,000 refugees. At this camp rations are inadequate to meet household needs, leaving refugees, particularly children and the elderly, facing malnutrition.

A difficult life

Broken shoes belonging to South Sudan refugee Okongo Charles

This pair of shoes is one of Okongo’s only possessions.

“My life here is very difficult,” says Okongo Charles, a South Sudanese refugee living in Uganda.

“My monthly ration only lasts two weeks.”

Okongo, 32, was among two million people forced to flee South Sudan during a wave of violence in 2016.

Okongo now lives in Palorinya refugee camp in a remote area of Uganda.

He dreams of seeing his children again after they were left behind in South Sudan. His tents leaks when it rains; his belongings consist of two cooking pots and a pair of broken shoes he wore on his long walk from South Sudan.

Living in a leaking tent

Alana John, 53, has lived in this tiny, leaking tent for over a year, since he fled fighting in Pajok, South Sudan.

Alana John, 53, has lived in this tiny, leaking tent for over a year.

Okongo Charles’ neighbour, Alana John, needs urgent help.

Alana has lived in a tiny, leaking tent for over a year, since he fled fighting in Pajok, South Sudan. A successful farmer in his previous life, Alana finds life here in Palorinya refugee camp extremely difficult.

His shoulder is dislocated and he lacks the energy to repair his broken-down tent. At present, other refugees help him obtain food.

Life for refugees in Uganda

60% lack adequate water access
50% of children have no education
3,500- number of families we could help

With your support we can help more South Sudan refugees

We have launched an emergency appeal for South Sudanese refugees in Uganda. With your help we can improve the lives of people in the Palorinya camp in the same way that we helped in Bidi Bidi.

We plan to support refugees with the following types of training.


Lona Kiji, 45, photographed in her plot of maize at her new home in Bidibidi refugee camp in northern Uganda.

Lona Kiji in her plot of maize at her new home in Bidibidi refugee camp, Uganda.


Refugees and members of the local community work together in a carpentry workshop at a techincal college supported by Caritas in Yumbe, Uganda.

Refugees work alongside members of the local community in a Caritas-supported carpentry workshop.


Nancy Tabu, a refugee in Bidibidi refugee camp, takes part in a Caritas-supported tailoring class.

Nancy Tabu, a refugee in Bidibidi, takes part in a Caritas-supported tailoring class.


A young man working on a generator in Uganda.

A young man working on a generator in Uganda.

Skills for girls

A drama group performs a skit about the dangers of child marriage during an event staged by Caritas in Bidibidi camp, Uganda.

Young girls perform a skit about the dangers of child marriage during an event staged by Caritas.


Malis Joseph, a refugee from South Sudan, inspects a chicken coop owned by a local collective in Bidibidi refugee camp, Uganda.

A chicken coop owned by a local collective in Bidibidi refugee camp, Uganda.