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In a refugee camp in South Sudan

South Sudan
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Tim Irwin, a Canadian from Montreal, is serving as United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees' (UNHCR) communications officer based in Juba, South Sudan. CIDA provides funding to the UNHCR—responsible for leading and coordinating international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee problems worldwide. Here is his report from the field:

It is still possible to drive to Maban County in South Sudan's Upper Nile state, but it won't be for much longer. The rainy season has started and within weeks the dirt roads that connect the region to the rest of the country will be flooded and impassable and will stay that way until October. For the past two months, UNHCR has been using fleets trucks, and even boats on the Nile, to make sure that adequate supplies are in place for the more than 117,000 refugees from Sudan living in four camps here before the flooding starts.

Fortunately for those working in Maban, small United Nations aircraft connect the village of Bunj with the capital Juba in a couple of hours rather than the seven days it would take by road. Working in South Sudan you quickly develop a deep respect for—and dependence on—logistics. Nothing happens easily and yet impressive things do happen. The country's newest refugee camp is an example. The Kaya camp is now home to around 17,000 refugees. They had been living in another camp which during last year's rains suffered serious floods. A better site was identified and earlier this year work began on creating Kaya. For six weeks starting in early May, two convoys a day, organized by UNHCR and partners, delivered families and their belongings to the new site.

Earlier this month I visited Kaya with Guor Mading Maker, a former refugee from South Sudan who now lives in Flagstaff, Arizona and who competed in the marathon at the London Olympics. At one of Kaya's schools a couple of hundred children had gathered outside the tents that serve as their classrooms to welcome this young man who, like them, had faced challenges and hardships that few of us can imagine and who had gone on to become a symbol of hope and proof that better lives are possible. There was singing and dancing and after Guor had spoken the children gathered around him chanting the word "hero" as they escorted him to his car.

You meet many heroic people in a refugee camp. Take Samam Yasine, a young mother of six children separated from her husband by conflict. She and her children walked for two months to escape fighting in their village in Sudan's Blue Nile state and to reach safety in Maban. I spent time with her as she moved her family to the Kaya camp, during the night they spent at a transit centre and the next day as she collected her belongings and was led to the plot where her tent had been pitched and that would serve as her home for the foreseeable future. Throughout the process, which for most people would be an ordeal of anxiety and uncertainty, she calmly cared for her children and patiently moved on to the next stage.

The theme of this year's World Refugee Day is "1 family torn apart by war is too many." Samam Yasine is the sole parent of one such family. When I asked her what she thought of her new home in the Kaya camp she replied, "It is better here, but we are still refugees." On World Refugee Day we honour people like Samam and we commit ourselves to stand by them, sharing their hope that soon they will be able to go home.

Date Modified: 2013-06-20