All opinions in this article are the author’s own and do not represent the views of Medair
In South Sudan, the concept of home is a fluid one. When I asked a colleague where he was from, he named a town but told me he had never been there – that it was his home because that was where his father was born. Another colleague has a house that he keeps in a refugee camp in Kenya where he grew up, and his home town is not currently safe for him to travel to. Most of our South Sudanese colleagues spent large parts of their lives in refugee camps in Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia, and perhaps as a consequence hold a stronger attachment and almost idealised view of their home town.
I recently went home to the UK for three weeks of holiday, having being in South Sudan for six months. My wife and I have been working in a refugee camp in Maban County with a disaster relief agency called Medair. We are part of a team that is providing the water supply, latrines, primary healthcare and nutrition to 40,000 refugees who have fled violence and persecution in Sudan.
Even being able to return home is a great blessing and one not open to the refugees with whom we work. There were times during our first six months in South Sudan when the thought of coming home sustained me and gave me the strength to carry on working as I knew that I could return and visit the people and places that I love. The refugees that we work with have no such luxury. On average, a UNHCR camp is open for 17 years. Yusuf Batil – the camp where we work – has been open for two years, so the statistics would point to its existing for a lot longer, meaning that a whole generation of people will grow up never having visited their physical hometown.
Due to the ongoing conflict across South Sudan there has been a severe food shortage in the area. In March this year, the refugees received 10 per cent of the food they were supposed to receive. At the same time, we suffered a series of armed attacks on the health facilities we run from people in search of food. We also saw people climbing trees to pick leaves to eat and the team has even had children gather outside one of our nutrition centres to collect the discarded wrappers from the nutrition supplement used, with hope that there might be some left inside. Despite all of this, the malnutrition rates of children did not increase as much as we would have thought. Instead the malnutrition rates of mothers disproportionately increased as they gave their own food rations to their children.
At the end of Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, Alyosha, the main character is talking to a group of school boys who are attending the funeral of their friend. He tells them: “You must know that there is nothing higher and stronger and more wholesome and good for life in the future than some good memory of childhood, of home.” I have no idea if those children will remember the sacrifices their mothers made for them and be able to recollect it as a good memory. I hope they can, because I can think of few better or more beautiful examples of what home is than a hungry and malnourished mother foregoing her own food to give to her children.
Reflecting on the concept of home, American author Frederick Buechner describes a time he witnessed a Sea World show with killer whales. He said the movements of the whales and the joy of the people watching were so beautiful and that the moment was so perfect that it brought tears to his eyes. He said he had caught a glimpse of the way things should be but are not, and that he had found a secret: that joy is home. He says: “The world is full of darkness, but what I think we caught sight of is that at the heart of darkness is joy unimaginable…in the long-run not all the darkness there is in the world can separate us finally from that joy.”
Which gives hope that even those who have been displaced from their physical home can know another, lasting and more real home, one of joy, peace and love. I hope that those children who took their mother’s food ration know that that was a taste of true home and that despite growing up in physical exile they will carry with them into adulthood, good memories of childhood and of home.