Margret Primo gave birth today on the floor of a vacant schoolroom among people she barely knew. She is one of nearly a million people who have fled the fighting in parts of South Sudan. Many are moving into camps but others are in limbo, scattered among the existing communities in other parts of South Sudan and neighboring nations.
More than 80,000 people are taking refuge in Eastern Equatoria State. Exhausted, starving and traumatized from the journey, the future is uncertain for Margret and others who have fled. State leaders are debating over where to settle them and, in the meantime, they are waiting at a nearby school.
The people we met had witnessed terrible things as they ran from their homes in Bentiu, the center of the fighting. War seems to be especially hard on the innocent ones. There were many women with babies, children who had been separated from their families, and elderly people. Most of the women reported that their husbands had been killed. We even met a young boy with Polio who had endured the long journey.
For me, this was all new. DROP is a development organization that provides water and sanitation to schools. Our main focus is keeping children in school, in order to move communities forward. We are not an emergency relief group. In fact, this is our first experience with displaced people or refugees. But we were perfectly positioned to help when the fighting broke out. We are based in one of the safe states bordering the conflict. Because of that, people fleeing the fighting began arriving in droves. Our team had vehicles on the ground and the capacity to help. So we began coordinating with the other aid groups in the area.
I must say it was a beautiful thing to witness firsthand. In the humanitarian coordination meetings the various groups tallied what their different donors had offered. Some were giving food, others were distributing blankets and mosquito nets, others medical care. Nobody was offering to provide soap, so we stepped up.
Soap may seem simple, but that’s only because you have access to it every day. But in refugee camps crowded with displaced people and lacking sufficient medical care, soap can make the difference between life and death by reducing the spread of diseases. For Margret and her baby, soap was a treasured necessity. According to the Center For Disease Control hand washing with soap, when done properly, is the single most effective way to prevent the spread of infectious disease. Simply put soap saves lives!
While distributing the soap, we also took the opportunity to promote better hygiene. We gathered small groups and, along with a team from PLAN International, went over some hygiene tips. During the hand washing demonstration, we called for volunteers and a bright little 7-year-old girl jumped up. She seemed so smart and engaged. I couldn’t help but think about her future. What had she gone through? Had she been enrolled in school where she came from? Would she get to go back anytime soon? Was her family intact? How would this experience impact her life?
Lack of education compounds the problem. There are extreme levels of poverty and illiteracy in the camps. People who are educated and financially stable are often able to relocate their families safely to a bordering country when war breaks out. But those without money have to survive on whatever the aid groups have to offer, hoping to settle somewhere safe before the rainy season comes – and praying that the scarce local resources are enough to sustain them all. Water points are already being overused and many crops have been destroyed from the fighting.
There is also tribal tension in the air. But amongst all of this chaos there are children who just want to be children. They are amazingly resilient and somehow always seem to find ways to amuse themselves, even amid the serious situation that surrounds them.