Live blog: What’s happening in the Bidi Bidi refugee camp?

This blog is regularly updated with updates on Stella and Plan’s response in the refugee camp.

The Bidi Bidi refugee camp is one of the largest settlements in the world. And it hosts the largest number of unaccompanied child refugees — the “lost generation.”

Entrance to the Bidi Bidi refugee settlement in north Uganda
Entrance to the Bidi Bidi refugee settlement in north Uganda.

The camp is the size of a city, home to over a quarter of a million people, most of whom fled from the violence in South Sudan. And yet, in this place surrounded by so many others, it can be incredibly isolating.

The safe haven can be a war zone for girls.

Refugees walk along a dirt road through the camp.

Stella, a kind, sensitive girl living in the camp is being brought deeper into devastation with every path she takes to find peace.

Stella refugee girl
"There are a lot of things that girls need here," Stella says.

She fled to the camp alone, walking for days — terrified — until she finally reached safety. Girls and women escaping conflict often face extreme risk of violence, as routes out of South Sudan remain unsafe. One UN survey found that around 70% of women had been raped since the conflict in South Sudan began.

A refugee girl in the Bidi Bidi camp told our local staff, “I saw a neighbor [in South Sudan] and he was telling me, ‘No, please run. Run to save your life. Rebels have attacked our village.’ So I grabbed my schoolbag and I ran. We were attacked on the way by rebels … some women were raped … We spent one night where we were attacked by wild animals. I was bitten by a snake.”

Luckily, Stella was able to make it to Bidi Bidi and receive protection. Like thousands of other orphaned girls and children in the camp, Stella found a foster family who agreed to take her in. She was happy to feel a sense of belonging. But when her foster parents traveled back to South Sudan, she was left alone with her foster siblings. And they made their message clear.

“Their children were always mocking me and saying bad things,” Stella says, wiping away tears with a piece of fabric. “They asked me why I stay with them. They said I should move away as I was not a member of their family.”

Photo of home in Bidi Bidi refugee camp

Children and young women who arrive at the Bidi Bidi camp alone typically try to find foster families from the same cultural backgrounds — rivalries between groups are common, and the refugees need to live with others who speak their language.

Some children in the camp have positive experiences with their foster families. At the same time, Stella’s situation isn’t rare. It’s been reported that the psychological wellbeing of children living with foster families is often unhealthy.

Child-friendly space in Bidi Bidi
Children play at a child-friendly space in Bidi Bidi.

In the aftermath of broken foster situations, sometimes girls try to escape through marriage. And that can lead to girls giving birth while still children themselves.

The number of early marriage and pregnancy cases in refugee settings is rapidly increasing, more so than normal, because of COVID-19. We’re seeing the greatest surge of child marriage rates in years. And childbirth is the leading cause of death among 15-19-year-old girls like Stella.

Stella met a boy at the camp, another refugee from South Sudan like her. He learned what she was dealing with at her foster home, and he offered her an alternative — for Stella to move in with him and his stepmother. And then, to become his wife.

Her hope soared. She said yes.

But once she moved in with her new husband, his mother tormented her — just like her foster siblings. Stella’s husband was the only person she felt she could rely on. He held her hope in his hands.

And then he crushed it.

After being married for just five months, Stella’s husband went back to South Sudan, without explanation. One of the worst parts of this for Stella is that when her husband convinced her to marry him, he also convinced her to drop out of school.

Stella, a girl living in the Bidi Bidi refugee camp in north Uganda, in front of her home

“Boys here always get into relationships with girls, and after making them pregnant, they leave you,” Stella says. “After they take you into their homes, they don’t take care of you properly.”

If Stella were to become pregnant and have a child of her own, taking care of her newborn would be incredibly complicated. She’s living in a fragile place where resources are extremely limited for her to even take care of herself.

Not so far away, another girl, Faith, knows how difficult it is to raise a baby in the camp.

Devastatingly, a boy raped 14-year-old Faith while she was bathing. She recently gave birth to her daughter. She misses her own mother and wishes she had more help.

“It was rape, not love,” Faith says. “The pain of giving birth was too much. Taking care of a child is not easy because I have not done it before. I see that my friends are still girls, and I’m like a wife. When the child grows, I want to go back to school.”

Faith, a girl living in the Bidi Bidi displaced persons camp in north Uganda, holds her new baby

But because of COVID-19, education has become incredibly difficult to access. More than 80,000 children in the camp have been affected. And school isn’t just the place where girls go to get their education — it’s also a safe space to receive menstrual hygiene products, clean water and food.

That’s another reason why marriage is seen as an only option for survival for many girls. Without education, many can’t sustain life on their own. But in taking the path of early marriage to achieve resilience, girls and young women move farther away from it.

Stella’s foster parents eventually returned back to the Bidi Bidi refugee camp. With the help of her foster mother, and Plan, she has left her husband’s home and re-enrolled in school.

But because Stella has been married, she faces a lot of stigma from the boys in her class. “They call me a prostitute, only a few are nice to me,” she says. “The boys always tease girls who have been married and are now back in school.”

In a recent UNESCO publication, it was reported that more than half of children in Uganda have experienced bullying — 54%. Of children in the country who have disabilities, 84% reported that they experienced violence by peers or school staff. And 75% of children ages 9 to 16 years old reported physical violence from a teacher.

Plan has been working in Bidi Bidi to help girls and children stay protected. One of Plan’s advisors for sexual rights and reproductive health, Sarah, meets with young refugees who have fled the war in South Sudan, many of whom have suffered from violence and assault.

But she believes that with the right support, young people in Bidi Bidi can find hope for the future again.

Sarah Plan worker

“We who work here are really struggling,” Sarah says. “There is a huge need in so many ways. The refugees lack everything that is necessary: food, education, health care, psychological support and work opportunities. But maybe what’s needed most is awareness of the rights of children and youth.”

Violence against children and forced marriages are also very common injustices that Plan works actively to stop. “I witness my colleagues in the camp making a difference every day — through informative efforts, as well as support to survivors of sexual violence, making sure they receive care, rehabilitation, legal and financial support.”

Luckily, Stella has been able to receive support from Plan’s programming. “My life here is better compared to South Sudan,” she says. “I’m proud of being here, because there is free education, unlike in South Sudan.”

Stella witnessed things in South Sudan that no one should ever have to see. Her life may be better in the refugee camp, but that’s in comparison to trying to survive a violent war by herself. Stella is still caught in limbo. Like many girls around her, she’s still facing inequality every day.

But she’s still holding onto hope.

Photo of refugee girl Stella in front of home

“In 10 years’ time, I hope to find that my life has changed,” she says.