Human Rights Day

"Unless I die, nothing will get in my way."

These are the words of a young refugee child, who ran from the Janjaweed in the Sudan and endured over 10 years of living in various refugee camps until he was finally accepted into Canada as a refugee. Unfortunately, that was only the beginning of a story we hear very little about – the challenges and obstacles facing refugee children and youth when they escape to relative safety.

In honour of Human Rights Day this Friday, December 10, and its focus on those who speak out against abuse, discrimination, and violence, we would like to draw attention to a forthcoming book: Supporting Refugee Children. The book is written by Jan Stewart, who is Director of the Institute for Children Affected by War at the University of Winnipeg and winner of the 2010 Marsha Hanan Global Ethics award. Jan has conducted numerous seminars at national and international conferences on the needs and educational challenges of children who have been affected by conflict, violence, abuse, mental health issues, neglect, and human rights violations. In her Uganda project, Stewart works with local teachers to develop non-Western ways of helping children in post-conflict situations. She then brings this information home to teachers-in-training so they can learn how best to help refugee children in Canada adjust to life after conflict.

In his foreword to the book, human rights defender Retired Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire applauds Stewart’s work:

"This timely, perceptive summary, full of practical teaching strategies, is for novice and master teachers, for social workers and counsellors, for administrators and policy makers. The theoretical framework and lesson guides will make this the go-to book for providing authentic teaching strategies in the classroom and for gaining a deeper understanding of the complexities of refugee children."

In addition to policy recommendations and concrete strategies and activities for educators, the book features case studies and stories from refugee children and families to illustrate each of the key issues Stewart identifies. We hope that many will benefit from Stewart’s work, and that it will inspire a new generation of human rights defenders. You can pre-order your copy of the book today via our website, or subscribe to our Twitter feed for information about conferences and events at which the book will be featured in the coming year.

To commemorate Human Rights Day 2010, here is an advance look at the prologue to Supporting Refugee Children by Jan Stewart:

Sokut’s Story

The following story was written by Sokut, who was a participant in a study that examined the needs and challenges of children affected by war.
Edited by J. Stewart.

They told us to run. If you hear the horses, run as fast as you can. You never know when the Janjaweeds will attack, and when they do, they will kill or capture everyone they find.

I was five. I was visiting my uncle. My family was in my home village which is a day’s walk away. The soldiers came. I was holding my uncle’s hand when the bullet hit him. He fell to the ground, I knew he was dead. I didn’t know where to run. I hid in the bush. Women were attacked and raped in front of me. I saw my own sister. It is very hard to talk about. I try not to remember.

I ran with the other boys, they were running in all directions. For about 100 days we walked through the bush. No shoes, no clothes, no water or food. We ate dead animals. I had to drink my own urine. We had no choice, we would die. Sometimes there was fruit or bark from the trees that we ate. Some of the berries were poisonous and children would die. We knew to be careful, but it was hard to resist; we were so hungry. Someone said that there was food in Dimma, Ethiopia. We walked for two months. There were 20,000 boys and no parents. Most of the girls were captured, but some walked with us. Many of us were taken by insects or by sickness. We had to bury them. I worried that I would go too. I knew that I would never see my family again. Some of the children were too tired to walk—they sat down. They would die of starvation or the wild animals would get them. It was hard to keep going.

I was in Dimma camp for three years. We had to cook by ourselves and sleep by ourselves. We drank water from the river, but it was not clean. It made our stomachs hurt. The UN gave us maize, beans, and sometimes sugar, oil, and salt. We soaked the rice overnight before we cooked it. Kakuma was hot and dirty, but we had food.

In 1997, the Ethiopian government was overthrown and the rebels chased us with guns. They gave us one week to leave. We didn’t move fast enough. They shot at us. Many children were killed; we were just young children. Coming to Ethiopia was hard, but going back to Sudan was worse. We had to cross the River Gilo. Many more died. I couldn’t swim. I held onto the dead bodies in the water to cross. The crocodiles ate some children.

The Sudanese government didn’t want us; they thought we would fight them. By the time we got to Sudan, 4,000 boys had died. The Red Cross said we must go to the Kenyan and Sudanese border. It took one month to get there. There was no grass, rivers, or trees—it was a desert. We had to walk at night. We started at 4:00 p.m. If we walked in the day, we were shot and killed. The UN dropped food, but sometimes the animals ate it.

I was in a camp at the Kenya-Sudanese border. We had to go to another camp when the Sudanese captured Keapore, which was two hours away. They would come and get us, so they moved us to Kakuma in 1998. I was about nine.

In Kakuma we were put into groups. There were 16,000 of us and we had to live in groups of five. A school was opened. For grades 1 to 4, we studied under the tree. When I reached grade 5, I studied in the school building. In August 2000, I was moved to Ifo Camp in Dadaab. People in my settlement were moved so that there would be more security. Ifo Refugee Camp was a hard life for me. The UN told me to go back to Kakuma, but I refused. They told me that I would not get any more food rations if I stayed. I walked to Dadaab town and I cleaned clothes for money and I cut trees in the bush to sell. I was captured by child rebels, but I was not hurt. They didn’t want me to take the trees. They said they would kill me if they caught me cutting more trees. I had to keep cutting trees or I would die. In 2001, I went back to Kakuma because the UN adjusted the rule to give everyone food rations.

I was rejected by the Canadian Embassy in 2001 because I was under 18. I spent over two more years in a refugee camp in Kenya. I was really 15, but I increased my age to 21. It was not my choice to come to Canada, it was the UN’s choice to send me. I lived in Winnipeg with three other boys from Sudan. Two boys were 16 and one was 17. We lived like adults. I have never really been a child…I have had no childhood.

I have been in Canada since 2003. I enjoy being in high school; it is the best part about being in Canada. I came here to have a peaceful life, but my life is not peaceful. It is still hard and I hope that it will change someday. When I came here I thought life would be like heaven. That is what I thought life was like in North America. But it is not. I am still a refugee. It is not safe for me here. I have been threatened and beat up. Other kids attack us because we are African and they think we are gang members. I don’t have money for food. There are the same problems for me in Canada that I had in Africa.

Some kids find the street life. They don’t have food and they want what Canadian kids have, but they don’t have any money. We need more support because sometimes we have to leave school to make money. School work is hard for us. It takes us longer to do the work and there is no one to help us. I want to educate myself and change my life so that it is better than before. I want to finish my high school. Unless I die, nothing will get in my way.

A total of 40 million people have fled their homes because of armed conflict or human rights violations. It is estimated that 20 million of these displaced people are children (Machel, 2001).

Leave a Reply