Uganda hosts close to 1.5 million refugees (UNHCR as of May 2021) in different settlements across the country, most concentrated in south-western and north-western Uganda. Lauded for its open-door refugee policy, Uganda sees the number of refugees and asylum seekers continue to rise. Many come from non-English speaking countries and face communication challenges in Uganda, a setting where English is the official language.
Just like many other refugee-host settings in Uganda where refugees from different countries are brought together, Kyangwali Refugee Settlement located in Kikuube district in the mid-western region is dominated by refugees from Francophone and Anglophone countries (Democratic Republic of Congo-DRC, Rwanda, Burundi). English is the official language of communication in this settlement.
Most of these refugees have had little or no chance of being exposed to English learning in their respective countries of origin. While on their way to and within the host community, refugees and asylum seekers are incapacitated in terms speaking, reading, writing, understanding, or expressing themselves in English. The failure to communicate in English makes it hard to demand and access their rights from direct service providers.
How does English for Adults (EFA) come in as a help to the change?
In the move to empower forced migrants to speak for themselves and to demand for their rights, the Refugee Law Project (RLP) with funding support from Democratic Governance Facility (DGF), in 2016 established a sub-office in Kyangwali under which English for Adults (EFA) is one of the programs (services) rendered. The program is guided by the “Speak Your Rights” curriculum under the Access to Justice Program, with the major aim of enabling adult refugees to understand, speak, read, and write the English language with ease and confidence. Since 2016 over 1000 refugees and asylum seekers have benefited from the program in Kyangwali.
A number of EFA beneficiaries have raised their voices of gratitude and testified about how they have benefited from EFA program and how it has greatly contributed to a positive change in their life. The following observations of change are based on their testimonies, collected by the EFA facilitators through EFA learners’ achievement assessment tools (success stories), as well as through facilitator-learner interactions.
Firstly, EFA changes the prior attitudes (lines of thinking) refugees have towards their life in the place of refuge.
When forced migrants arrive in the refugee settlement, they individually think it is hard and impossible to survive in a country that is not of one’s origin. They assume that their life can never continue normally as a human. Holding such assumptions, which influences their perceptions of many aspects of their social and economic lives, is often attributed to experiences of violence associated with their traumatic past. They look at being a refugee and one leaving his/her country of origin as being subjected to prolonged suffering.
EFA program has been observed as an aid in changing this kind of thinking as it unifies different learners (refugees) with different experiences who share with one another on how to move on with life. An EFA graduate 2021 called Sami Jackson (not real names) shared with one of the EFA facilitators and asserted;
“I am so happy now because when I came here (Uganda) I thought it was the end of my life. I thought I was going to suffer while in Uganda as a refugee. But when I joined EFA I started getting used slowly and understood things to be normal, but most importantly, the English I learnt helped to expand my connections with people in community, & different service providers, which improved on my social ties. I realized that some of my EFA facilitators are refugees like me who shared with us the same experiences. I am happy that now I work with CIDI where I get money to survive. Thanks so much Refugee Law Project”
Secondly, EFA makes refugees (learners) become more ambitious and optimistic.
As an EFA facilitator and a refugee myself, my experiences in the refugee setup is that refugees are faced with communication barriers as they interface with service providers. Because they cannot speak or understand English language, they also cannot easily be helped with some critical issues.
English for Adults (EFA) is therefore seen as the only possible solution to the communication problem and more so makes them get determined to learn and fulfill their plans for the future. Amani Faustin (not real names), who finished Level 4 in 2020, testified;
“When I came to Uganda, I was first taken to refugee reception center (Kagoma refugee reception center), as the normal procedure for all new arrivals. I recall that one time I wanted to ask for assistance from a staff (Red Cross staff) but I was not able to speak English. This really challenged me because I could not freely express myself to pursue an urgent need that time. Although I got someone who understood my language to interpret my request to the staff for me to be assisted, it wasn’t easy for me in the first place. But after joining EFA, everything started becoming easy for me. I started developing a plan to find a business that would make me continue practicing English so that I can know it better.
Thirdly, there is a felt change in individual status and in the learner’s sense of belonging to the community.
While in the settlement, refugees and asylum seekers feel they are less important and nearly unable to contribute to the society they are living in. They feel unvalued by the society and therefore feel they cannot build the sense of belonging to the society.
It has been realized that through EFA program, refugees not only learn and acquire English language skills but also are equipped with skills to develop and cope up with life.
Through the “Be Together” (learn from each other) initiative in EFA classes, learners (refugees) share their current life experiences which helps them build and develop their sense of adaptability towards dynamics of situations, and hence increases the sense of self esteem. This furthermore prompts them to try opportunities that come around, such as  job opportunities  scholarship opportunities  livelihood or business opportunities, all of which can in turn lead them to success.
As per the “Speak Your Rights” curriculum which guides the English for Adults (EFA) teaching, learners (refugees) are exposed to the topic of human rights. They are made aware that regardless of their status, they are still human beings and are still entitled to all human rights. This gradually changes their attitudes towards their personal and societal status within the community. This is exemplified by the testimony from one EFA alumni who had this to say;
“To be honest with you, from Congo I was not able to express myself in English. While here in Kyangwali I tried job opportunities that were available, unfortunately I didn’t succeed. I blamed the employers for denying me the job that maybe it was because I was a refugee. But when I joined EFA I started getting/learning English and it changed my thinking. Right now I have no much complication in English language skills; I can apply for jobs by myself with different organizations and be considered. I feel comfortable and important to the community in which I stay. Thankyou Refugee Law Project”
Conclusively, EFA is a catch-up education programme which has positively impacted lives of refugees and asylum seekers. This is because it has greatly empowered them to speak for themselves and demand rights on their own. It has more so proved to be one of the pivotal points through which forced migrants can restore their lost hope in learning a language (English) which is vital in integration as it promotes self-expression which comes with various opportunities in the host country, Uganda. Furthermore, those who have subsequently gone through the process of resettlement as one of the durable solutions have attested to the significance of learning English. Therefore, this goes out as a call to governmental and non-governmental education stakeholders all over the world to gather their efforts and render their attention towards English for Adult for forced migrants.
Dusenge Paul, Community English for Adults Facilitator, Refugee Law Project, School of Law Makerere University