Refugee-Led Organizations and Covid-19 Stories [n°1] – RELON Uganda

  • Uganda

Refugee-Led Organizations and Covid-19 stories [n°1] – John Bolingo, RELON Uganda.


Leaving home

From one moment to the next, I understood I had to leave. I left everything behind, I had lost my parents and my sisters stayed in DRC. I was hopeless, without a home, family, or friends.

I first arrived in Kisoro, in Uganda, a town barely 15 kilometers away from the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, my home. I did not know where to go or what to do. I had nothing on me. It was the year 2000, my adult life was starting at 25 as a refugee.

Not having a place where to sleep, I was allowed to stay at the police station for a few days. During the day I moved around and about, and I ended up going back to the police station to sleep. I had no idea what to do. After a few days, I learned that all newly arrived refugees to Uganda are expected to report to the police, which I did.

The feeling of loss and uncertainty is difficult to describe.

During my goings and comings, I met a Christian Pastor. He hosted me for about a week, after which he gave me some money to go to Kampala – Uganda’s fast-growing capital hosting more than 3 million people– some 500 kilometers to the northeast. There again, I reported to the police, and there again, they were generous enough to let me stay for a whole week.



The bus – my new home

I approached the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Uganda, which set off a procedural machine full of questions and papers which unfortunately did not change much the absence of a roof over my head. For a while, at 8 PM it meant to be another night without a place to sleep.

Looking for a place to live, someone pointed in a certain direction and said I would find an “old bus” standing not far from the Police Station. “There,” I was told, “you will find many refugees like you…”

What I found there was appalling. Many people were in and around the bus, and many of them had not eaten in days. At least 60 people were surviving as they could, practically piling onto each other, mostly women and children living in rather harsh conditions. Nights were cool and food and water scarce.

From that time, however, the memory that I keep from that place is the love around me.

They welcomed me – after all, we were sharing the same destiny – and in the following days, I kept wandering around Kampala, looking for a way to survive. I met Anthony Musaala a local priest. I told him about me, about the bus. Without saying much, he gave me money and told me to use it to feed the people.
A few days later he came by to our little “bus community”. He asked for me. The money had been used as he had indicated and people approached him expressing gratitude. That day, a friendship was born out of solidarity and generosity.



A new horizon

From that day on, Anthony started working with us and helped us organize our “bus” community. Sometime later, he managed to obtain the permission for all the refugees living in the bus to move temporarily into the premises of an abandoned school, where we had more security and space to live, and AGAPE was born, the first transit center for refugees to be established in Kampala – now more than 20 years ago.

Moving to a more dignified place meant a lot to all of us refugees. In that school, life started again for many of us.

I was elected to represent the refugees and with Anthony’s support, we raised enough funds to buy a house to formalize the transit place for refugees.

I was happy to offer newly arrived refugees a place to stay. I knew what this place represented in front of the loneliness and loss you experience as a refugee in a foreign land. Moreover, this place was a refuge to shelter them from further violence or even exploitation.

Refugees gathered together, received important information faster, and facilitated support, which in the end accelerated the process of self-reliance and empowerment we much needed.

For example, immediately after arrival, refugees were guided to officially activate the administrative machine to obtain Refugee status, thus enabling them to work, benefit from UNHCR ad hoc support and lastly start improving their lives.

From the moment of my arrival to Uganda in 2000 until 2008 my life got involved with the needs of the waves of refugees arriving mostly from DRC. I had shared the same fears and uncertainties. I understood the need for legal and economic security. I knew the risks to which all of them – in particular women and children – were exposed not knowing where to go or not even speaking a language they could understand.

I realized I had to do something based on this awareness and experience to help people like myself and that is how “Hope for children and women victims of violence – HOCW” was born in 2010 and joined RELON in 2016 of which I am currently Chairman.



RELON and its role in Advocacy

RELON (Refugee Led Organizations Network) gathers 34 Refugee Led Organizations in Uganda. It was born in 2011 to address refugee needs through a unified voice, thus optimizing the available scarce human and material resources.

RELON believes that enabling refugees to reach autonomy and independence is key for a dignified and solid future. This approach is reflected in its programs focused on self-sufficiency, regarding food – farming skills), income-generating activities – skill-building, and microfinance.

Other programs specifically shaped to the needs of the refugee population of Kampala, address the empowerment of women, health / reproductive health, support for children’s school fees, and protection and advisory services against violence.

RELON currently reaches – directly and indirectly – up to 30,000 refugees across Uganda.

Advocacy is one of RELON’s key approaches in order to uphold and give visibility to the interests and needs of refugees and RLOs in Uganda. This work is done through active communication and networking with local authorities (e. g. State Minister for Relief and Disaster preparedness), institutional partners (e. g. UNHCR, Open Society Foundation, Oxfam, and International Refugees Rights Initiative amongst others), regional players (e. g. the African Union – AU and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights), lawmakers, and the participation to relevant regional forums (e. g. Africa Refugee Summit – that in 2019 gathered up to 70 refugee delegates from across Africa and the Global Refugee Forum).

The topics addressed go from the legal capacity to obtain SIM cards to the freedom of movement, association, and employment. Today RELON is working towards obtaining an observer seat at the African Union to achieve refugee participation at gatherings that may address issues of their concern, such as it did at the Global Refugee Forum.




Urban Refugees (UR) started supporting RELON in August 2020 through its “Incubation Program” meant to reinforce RLOs capacities to better support refugees, in areas such as Advocacy and Fundraising amongst others. This project has so far trained 14 RELON leaders.




Needless to recall the harsh economic consequences of COVID amongst refugees. This challenge made RELON quickly adapt and help prevent the further spread of the disease among the refugees and their host communities.

With the support of Urban Refugees, we ensured the rapid distribution of food and non-food items including life skills training in menstrual hygiene management and commercial reusable pad production to 194 the most vulnerable people. The support of impactful income-generating activities such as RELON’s restaurant and catering services ensured the employment of 4 people in this time of crisis.

RELON is ensuring the production of adequate COVID – preventive information to refugee communities and is about to release a new set of COVID-related messages from the Ministry of Health.

The delivery of aid and information is ongoing at the RELON community hub and through social media platforms

The challenges of this crisis keep unfolding: The new cases of violence and harassment of women are on the rise and our advocating work with the police and the local government keeps developing. RELON continues to facilitate psychological support to victims of sexual violence.

The impact of this work has been proactively shared with RELON’s partners through social media channels, such as Twitter and Youtube – podcasts and media training and testimonies.



Changing lives

The empowerment of women is my vision. Hundreds of surviving women – now refugees, need support to achieve autonomy and sustainability for themselves and their families.

The stories of the people I meet every day are almost always, full of hopelessness. I share my own story to tell them that their today does not have to be their tomorrow. RELON’s work contributes to those stories becoming people with faces and names who change their lives and those of their communities:

“The Elder” and Mary each of whom, employ today five people in their respective beauty salon and tailor’s shop.
Masika who after many adversities has her own beauty salon.
Prisca, who is today a promising Business Administration student at Kampala’s Ndejje University.

Being a refugee made me understand above all, the need to give hope to those who have lost everything; remind everyone of the power within them to make things happen. My work gives people the courage to change their lives in spite of any challenge. It enables refugees to improve the communities they live in with their energy, perspective, and experience.

John Bolingo

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