Uganda welcomes compassionately… “You are welcome, our visitors!”


Uganda welcomes compassionately…

“You are welcome, our visitors!”

by: Karine Veldhoen

There is an untold story on the world stage; it begins with You are welcome, our visitors!

As I’ve traveled throughout Uganda on 13 trips, over the past decade, in diverse schools, in countless classrooms, I consistently encounter the greeting, in unison, with a chorus of sincerity, You are welcome, our visitors!

The greeting echoed through my heart as I visited my first refugee camp in Uganda, with an understanding the statistics. There are currently 800,000 refugees living in the country and 3,000 per day continue to pour across the borders from the South Sudan. These people are literally fleeing for their lives. They come only with what they can carry. They almost always arrive on foot. They lose some along the way.

Uganda welcomes compassionately.

Upon arrival the government offers a plot of land to the family and initial materials for the construction of a home. While generous and free, subsistence barely defines it.

Then, they must eat. The rations are slimming now. Support is being cut. My friend and colleague, Randy Sohnchen, is currently working with UNHCR to provide Omer Farm’s premium rice seed to the people of Bidi-Bidi, the world’s largest refugee camp. Bidi-Bidi is host to 270,000 refugees as reported 4 months ago.

The need is great.

Kiryandango is the refugee camp we sped through just 10 days ago. In the heart of Uganda, a city called Bweyale, you approach the camp by car and the plots with huts span across the hillside as far as you can see both left and right. There are 70,000 refugees in this settlement.

The Whitaker Peace and Development Initiative hosted our tour. They are passionate about cultivating peace through multiple modalities; their investment offers the best for children and youth. The community development site in the refugee camp just opened. It houses athletic fields, computer labs, and many more opportunities for advancement. Programs are offered with the thread of peace woven throughout, instilling this value in the young people of Kiryandango.

Friends support.

During our visit we were also introduced to a couple of Child Friendly Spaces. While most children do not attend school, some young children participate in a daycare facility in the camp where enrichment activities are hosted each weekday morning. The room I saw was a classroom for 208 preschoolers. The offering includes literacy, numeracy, parent involvement, and play! Still, I didn’t see one book.

There is a darker side
My teammates and I explored different parts of the settlement. We struggled to capture images in the blur of the tour. Then, we met up in front of the second Child Friendly Space, where twice a week movies are the primary offering.

Children gathered at the side of the road as we connected. Pictures were snapped.

That’s when the settlement opened itself up to me and I peered into its pages of despair

I walked over and without thinking opened the trunk of our van to grab some innocuous and immemorable supply. The children immediately swarmed like wasps buzzing their desperation. They were looking for something, for anything, I was going to pull out of that boot. Their need for bread, colour, or joy cracked open.

Ha! I’ve done it all: candy, clothes, toys, and books. Yet, today I offered nothing. By principle, Niteo is now careful never to offer gifts directly to children. Learning from our mistakes, we know it reinforces too many negative hierarchies and inappropriate mindsets.

Nonetheless, it’s been a long time since I’ve felt the distress of children pressing on me like I did in that moment. It was visceral.

The question laid bare.

If you were Mary Poppins and could pull something out of a proverbial trunk for those children, what would it be?

For me, it is education. I can’t think of anything better! We can join with the government of Uganda and chant, ‘You are welcome, our visitors!’ We can make all the different in the world for another group of refugees!

We can support weaving the thread of peace throughout this settlement by offering books. Our offering, Open books, Open minds, Open doors.

I call it redemption. It is more than books. It is dignity.

This Place is So Good

by: Karine Veldhoen

It’s called Abuga Road. It is a redemption story.

In 2014 two Canadian teenagers and I attended the grand opening of the Niteo Africa literacy centre in Gulu, Uganda. The centre is on Abuga Road, not far from Lacor Hospital. Our story is in the contrast. It sits in the darkness and light; it is found in the clearing of the dust. Allow me

Our exploratory visit in 2013 enchanted us with the pine and mango tree nobly standing next to one another, like Canadian and African partners.

The land sparkled in the sunlight and was sweetened with the fruit! In this place, we could see the ultimate vision of mother and child expanding and growing together, through literacy and learning. The trees whispered their hope to house.

At first, it was about the books. Shorestone Homes made an exceptional and quiet grant to Niteo and our partner, Hope North, with Okello Kelo Sam. The centre opened its doors. The Local Council leaders attended with thanks and the teachers and children were present.

We even found caretaker Sam with a guitar and the celebration was rich!


But, today, on July 11, 2017, we formally interviewed caretakers Sam and Florence, of the Gulu Literacy Centre. The University of British Columbia is partnering with us in a formal program evaluation. It was a standard question. I innocently asked,

What is the impact of this library

I thought it was about books, education, literacy. I thought we would discuss academic progress and student visitors. Instead

They told us a haunting story.

Before the centre, Abuga road had violence. Killing was still in the air from the Kony terror. Northern Uganda tasted blood. And, this road, Abuga Road, wasn’t a neighbourhood, it was a danger zone.

Florence translates, Sama’s words,

Those days when this library was not there, people were not here at all. So those days, nobody was here. Yeah, this place was very bad. They kill people. They do what

So they were wondering how we were staying here after today? Why are they not coming to steal us?

So now people are very happy with us, because we have brought them here. Now all these bodies [people] that you are seeing, they’ve just come out [because] of the library.

Because they used to fear this place so, so, so much!

They always ask me, How do you stay there I say, That place is safe and I will sleep peaceful at night I’ve already stayed here now for three good years and I’ve not had anything.a�?

Even the area’s Local Councils are now thanking us because the owners of the lands here now they’ve gotten encouraged because from us. So now they are selling the land to the people.a

It’s like this whole neighbourhood has become good?! A community is blossoming.

Friends of Niteo, most days, I think that we send books to African children.

But, today, I got a glimpse of something greater.

What happens when you give the gift of dignity? What happens when you create something beautiful and available? What changes when your heart powerfully believes in people? What happens when you walk straight into the lions den and a miracle happens: the lions are silenced?

I call it redemption. It is more than books. It is dignity.

Our work in Uganda has just begun. We know that it is making an impact and in fact, saving precious lives through peace.

If you feel inspired please DONATE to Niteo Africa Society and help us reach more deserving communities.

These days they’ve learned that this place is so good for their children.