My Dad was a political refugee. His student activism against the Apartheid regime in South Africa forced him to flee for fear of being sent to Robben Island; where Nelson Mandela famously spent 18 years. UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, helped him resettle and finish his medical training. The legacy of Apartheid and the theme of displacement runs deep throughout my family and makes me realise how any one of us could become a refugee through one seismic political shift or an insane belief about skin colour.
I have just returned from Uganda from my second “mission” with UNHCR after visiting two refugee camps in Rwanda 9 months ago. Uganda is home to over 1.2 million refugees and their generous open border policy feels like an example the rest of the world could learn something from.
Rwamwanja Settlement is home to over 67,000, refugees. Established in 2008 to host Rwandan refugees, Rwamwanja is now home to Refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo and a small number from South Sudan. Over 60 per cent of the population here are women and children. With over half of Uganda’s refugee population under 18, the situation is very much a children’s crisis. What makes Rwamwanja unique is that it’s home to an unusually high Albino community, who have specific concerns and vulnerabilities. Being bi-racial, I have always related to the idea of being black and white at the same time, but identity and belonging take on a whole new dimension as an Albino refugee.
With no melanin to protect them from the Ugandan sun, young people living with Albinism are at a high risk of developing skin cancer. They also have to deal with eye health issues and persecution; as their body parts can be sold at very high prices due to a belief that they have magical properties. Affectionately known as “Albino village”, the community in Rwamwanja sprung up from a sense of safety in numbers and word of mouth. With farming being the main livelihood for refugees, an activity that necessitates time in the sun, albinos can also be at an economic disadvantage and need to pursue vocational training indoors.
At the Youth centre, hip hop music reverberated out the door. Twenty year-old “P-Diddy” performs with swagger. “I started calling myself P-Diddy at age 10 after my favourite rapper” he told me. He fled DRC after numerous attacks “because of my skin”. He raps about love and dreams of a music career but his performance persona masks a deep fear. “Even here, I have to be careful, I can’t just walk around by myself. I don’t feel very free”.
Felix, a dancer, brings such passion and soul to his movements. “I feel it. I can communicate my message through dance. I can talk about my sadness at one moment and then other times I show them my joy.” It’s so moving to watch him own the space with the grace of Billy Elliot, but I couldn’t help but notice welts of sun damage on his beautiful 19 year-old face.
The room stilled when a pair of young men, one albino, one black stood up to sing with an acoustic guitar. After the amplification of the hip-hop, the purity of their sound brought a more soulful vibe and I felt myself leaning in. Jonny who is albino, closed his eyes when he sang, Dennis who is black played the guitar and they harmonise beautifully. It’s only after they finished performing that I learn that they are twins.
Aged 22 and from DRC, they have been in the settlement for four years. Jonny spoke passionately about the trauma of their past: “I’ve been attacked many times… when I was 16, I was kidnapped and sold at the border with Burundi. Luckily some soldiers at the border found me tied up and hidden inside a mattress they were carrying.” Skin cancer is a real fear for Jonny and other albinos but UNHCR, desperately underfunded in Uganda, are not able to provide sun cream among the other tough life-saving decisions to give refugees their most basic needs. ”Albinos as young as 18 have got cancer in this settlement… we are afraid to go outside, it is so sunny here. Life is very hard.”
They played me one last song, one of their own compositions, the beauty of their connection brought tears to my eyes. Dennis is very protective of his brother and it’s clear the music is healing for them both: “Dennis and I try to be an example to people here. When they see the two of us together and know that we are twins, they understand that none of it matters, we are all human beings. It’s just a colour.”
On World Albinism Day and in the run-up to World Refugee Day we can all be inspired to do something for refugees. Dennis and Jonny made me think about how we can take steps in our own lives – however big or small – in solidarity and support of refugees at home and all over the world.
Albinism Awareness Day is on the June 13 and World Refugee Day on June 20 2019. For more information on how you can help refugees and support UNHCR visit Refugeeday.org