The Paradox of Being a U.S. Intern in a Ugandan Refugee Settlement

There are things in life that all of the reading, videos and frantic Googling cannot prepare you for. My experience providing emergency relief and humanitarian aid for newly-arrived refugees in Uganda was one of them.

I am currently residing in the Kyangwali Refugee Settlement, where I spend my weekdays as an intern under the Humanitarian Aid sector for Action Africa Help (AAH), a non-governmental organization that supports communities in conflict and post-conflict situations (e.g. refugees and internally displaced people).

“The issues you will see here started long before you came and will continue long after you are gone.” This was one of the first things one of my intern supervisors at AAH told me when I reached the settlement.

“Even the ability to neatly package my experience into a blog screams ‘privilege.'”

To add context: Uganda currently hosts approximately 1.3 million refugees, making it home to the largest number of refugees in Africa and one of the top five refugee-hosting countries worldwide, according United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Due to the latest influx of refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the population of Kyangwali settlement has nearly doubled, from 35,000 to more than 66,000 refugees.

As an intern in the Kyangwali settlement, there have been many instances which have caused me to took a step back and reexamine my positionality with the world around me. These include:

  • Spending an entire work day conducting emergency relief for Congolese refugees in the settlement, then later finding myself in my quarters, scrolling through Instagram to see countless peers at Coachella or the unnecessary media obsession over the Khloe Kardashian/Tristan Thompson “scandal”
  • Knowing many refugees are suffering symptoms from the recent cholera outbreak in the settlement, but being assured that I’d have the access to safe drinking water, food, and medical services
  • Not taking pictures of refugees while in the field because I feel I would be objectifying them to be a fashionable “commodity” that is “consumed” by westerners (unless of course, consent is given)
  • Refraining from drinking water or eating food while I am around refugees in the field because I don’t know how thirsty or hungry they may be at that given moment
  • Feeling threatened while experiencing cat-calling from young refugee men as I serve them hot meals through the World Food Programme
  • Understanding the nuanced tension between environmental conservation and human rights, as many refugees are cutting down trees from a primary forest in the settlement to sell firewood for a living
  • Comparing and contrasting the food, people, smells and infrastructure between my first-hand experience in a Ugandan refugee settlement and my dad’s stories of a Chinese refugee settlement where he lived for seven years
  • Seeing first-hand how Uganda is reaching its resource capacity with the refugee influx from the Democratic Republic of Congo, while my home country (the U.S.) — comparatively abundant in resources — is actively working towards a more strict refugee policy (and migrant policy as a whole)
  • Knowing that in four weeks, I will be in my comfortable home in California with my family, while other families are being torn being apart due to the DRC conflict and the refugee influx in Uganda persists

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Even the ability to neatly package my experience into a blog screams “privilege.”

I am still actively trying to wrap my head around the contradictions of my presence as an AHH intern in the Kyangwali refugee settlement, but I recognize that the learning experiences I am having here are unparalleled to anything I could get from a traditional classroom.

Nancy Nguyen is an honors student studying sociology and public administration. She is studying abroad in Kampala, Uganda for an entire semester.


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