Fresh from filming the latest season of Showtime’s Homeland, actor and activist Mandy Patinkin traveled to Uganda this month with the International Rescue Committee to see what happens when refugees are given welcome.
Along with his wife Kathryn and son Isaac he met resilient, resourceful people who are restarting their lives in a country that has made a choice to build bridges, not walls.
Uganda’s example sees refugee children supported into education, families provided land for homes and farms, and newcomers helped to integrate. It’s all about building trust and friendship.
Follow Mandy's journey:
Day 1: Side by side
In recent years, Uganda has welcomed over 1.4 million refugees fleeing violence in South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and other neighbouring countries. On a visit to sprawling Kampala, Mandy visited a career center and learned how the IRC is equipping refugees with the knowledge and skills they need to survive and thrive on their own in the city.
Businesses here, such as Karibu Cream catering, employ refugees as well as local Ugandans. Karibu Cream’s chairman told Mandy he has big aspirations for the company and is proud of what it has already achieved. This business — like so many others — has helped the Ugandan community to look at refugees not just as refugees but friends to work with and people to learn from.
Before Mandy set off for the next leg of his journey, he met a Congolese refugee named Ida. She taught him a song of welcome: karibu.
Day 2: A new day
In northern Uganda Mandy and his family visited Imvepi refugee settlement. At an IRC women’s centre Mandy and Kathryn met mothers and daughters who had arrived from South Sudan just a few days before, and shared with them their own family’s history. “One of the reasons we are here is because our grandparents are refugees,” Mandy told the women. “They fled Eastern Europe. They had the courage and the strength so their children, just like yours, could have a better life.”
Juan is one of the women the couple met who’ve been given the chance of a new life. She fled her home in South Sudan with her four children to safety in Uganda one year ago. She now works with the IRC as a community volunteer helping other refugees get settled, her ability to speak five languages a real asset – Kathryn joked with Juan that she could barely speak one.
I’ve just met Juan at a women’s center in the Imvepi refugee settlement. She was our interpreter and was overcome with emotion several times by the stories the women shared. Juan was forced to run from her home in South Sudan to safety in Uganda with her four children, one year ago. Now, she works as a community-based volunteer for @theIRC, helping women who have just made that same journey. I meet beautiful people like Juan and continually ask myself: how could anybody close their doors on these people?
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Days 3 and 4: An extraordinary mother
At the Bidi Bidi refugee settlement, one of the world’s largest, Mandy met social worker Lilian Dawa. Lilian lost her husband in the South Sudan conflict in 2014 and, remarried, now lives with her two children and new husband here in Bidi Bidi. She works at an IRC women's center, helping other refugee women recover from the trauma of sexual violence and abuse.
Mandy asked her what she’d like to share with the world, and she told him: “We must build the capacity of women.”
Kathryn suggested that perhaps women should run the world. “Amen,” said Lilian.
In Bidi Bidi Mandy also met IRC staff at a health center housed in a tent that was being battered by monsoon rains. There he learned that the humanitarian response to the refugee influx is only five percent funded — world leaders can do more to support Uganda’s welcome.
Welcome, not walls
When he visited a bustling market in Bidi Bidi refugee settlement Mandy saw stalls run both by refugees as well as Ugandans. Working side by side, they learn each other’s language without the need for classes. “They learn to be friends, and they learn they are in a community,” Mandy said of the refugees. “And they learn that they really belong. And their life begins again.”
With more people worldwide displaced by crisis than at any time since World War II, Uganda is demonstrating a way forward at a time when the United Kingdom and other European countries are closing borders and not taking enough responsibility to help the most vulnerable.
Mandy’s journey shows us that Uganda is an example to us all: a country and its people doing so much with so little to welcome refugees.
Ugandans, who are themselves recovering from a civil war in their country that lasted nearly three decades, have said to refugees, ‘we know what you’re going through — and we stand with you.’