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Home Alone: South Sudan teen leads her young siblings to safety in Uganda

Yayo Tanhko (centre), with her sister Yotok to her left. The two girls looked after their younger siblings in Uganda

Yayo Tanhko (centre), with her sister Yotok to her left. The two girls looked after their younger siblings in Uganda. © UNHCR / D. Lusweti

BOROLI REFUGEE SETTLEMENT, Uganda, September 4, 2014—When 13-year-old Yayo Tangko turned up at the Boroli refugee settlement in Uganda earlier in 2014 with her four younger siblings, she feared the worst for her missing parents. “They are dead, because otherwise they would have come looking for us,” the South Sudanese teenager told aid workers.

It turned out she was wrong and the children would eventually be reunited with their mother. But the aid workers were impressed with the girl’s strength and determination in bringing her sister and three brothers to safety after conflict flared between government forces and rebels in South Sudan at the end of 2013.

When the fighting came to Pibor county, where they lived, the children’s parents were away at a market. Kept together by Yayo, the children were swept along by the mass of humanity flowing out of Jonglei and into Adjumani and other districts of northern Uganda.

They walked for days, with the older children taking turns carrying two-year-old Babur. Other refugees shared food with the youngsters and protected them until they reached the border crossing at Elegu, where they were picked up and taken to the Dzaipi transit centre. In such emergency situations, UNHCR and its partners are always looking out for children travelling alone or separated from their families.

The centre was overcrowded though, and after a month Yayo and her siblings were transferred to the Boroli refugee settlement, where UNHCR partners assigned them a guardian and gave them a simple shelter. Despite the help, they weren’t getting enough to eat and when the rains came, their tarp couldn’t protect them.

UNHCR staff first met the children in February, and their hardship was clear. They found Babar chewing ugali, a kind of porridge made from cornmeal, but he was showing signs of malnutrition.

A UNHCR nutrition officer brought fortified biscuits, clothes and blankets, and referred Babar to a clinic so that he could be treated for malnutrition.

The UN refugee agency worked with the Lutheran World Federation to build a traditional dwelling, a tukul, for the children. Save the Children gave them a new tarpaulin, blankets, sleeping mats, clothes, kitchen goods, health and sanitation items, and also introduced them to other children and a special play area. “Now we feel safe. We can come out and play,” said Yayo, who still missed her parents. .

Efforts were launched by UNHCR and its partners, including the Uganda Red Cross Society and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), to trace family members. But Yayo again showed her initiative by asking a refugee who was returning to South Sudan to take Babur and Kobrin, aged five, with him in May to see if they could find relatives to take care of them.

A few weeks later, the two youngsters were reunited with their mother, Mary, at a site for internally displaced people in South Sudan. Yayo talked with her mother by phone and, in early June, Mary and the two boys moved to Boroli. Their father is reportedly fighting as a soldier.

The younger children benefit from Save the Children nursery school programs, but Yayo can’t yet go to school because she has to help look after the family. She’s hoping that with her mother back she can return to class.

Having most of the family together helps to make up for the hardship of being a refugee, and at least they are safe and can hope for a better future in a country which allows refugees a great deal of freedom. Uganda currently accommodates about 400,000 refugees, including 137,000 from South Sudan.

Article by Dorothy Lusweti in Boroli Refugee Settlement, Uganda