Helping Ugandan refugees

Two Arizona Kiwanians visit Africa to help children and their families.

By Julie Saetre

Tim Aalbu had always wanted to travel to Africa. So when this Arizona Kiwanian received an opportunity to combine that trip with a much-needed service project, he eagerly accepted. The current club president of The Superstitions, Mesa Kiwanis Club in Arizona joined immediate past president Dan McKay and 17 other volunteers on a trip to Uganda through the Hope Humanitarian organization based in Salt Lake City, Utah. 

Hope Humanitarian, formed in 2016, organizes service trips to help refugees around the world, a mission that resonated with the two Kiwanians, who have embraced their Kiwanis club’s 46 years of service to children. But reaching the Ugandan refugee camp wasn’t easy. A 10-hour time difference exists between Arizona and Mesa, and the flights required five-hour layovers in both New York City and Doha, Qatar, followed by luggage delays upon arrival in Uganda and a five-hour van ride to the refugee camp. 

“The travel part of the whole trip was pretty brutal,” Aalbu says. 

Once they arrived at the refugee camp, however, the welcome they received outshone the obstacles.  

“The first day we pulled into camp, when we opened the door, we were absolutely mobbed. It felt like we were Mother Teresa or some world celebrity or the pope. Especially the kids. All they wanted to do was touch your skin or hold your hand or grab onto your leg. It became pretty emotional. They were so overwhelmed by us being there and wanting to help.” 

Thousands of people live in the camp after fleeing from unrest and violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Ugandan government provides each member of the most vulnerable refugee households $4 per month to assist with basic personal and household needs, but much remains to be accomplished. 

With Hope Humanitarian, Aalbu and McKay worked on three projects: building two community storage shelters from the ground up, constructing tower gardens and establishing a preschool at a local church.  

Tower gardens make the most of limited space and water supplies by providing a vertical structure that can accommodate a variety of plants. In this case, elders from the camp taught both the volunteers and other residents how to form large mesh bags into a cylinder about the size of a 55-gallon drum, which is then filled with a soil and manure mixture. Seedlings can then be tucked into the mesh holes and hand-watered. 

“It’s amazing the amount of crop that it produces over time,” Aalbu says, “and how you can do it in such a small space.”  

After assembling 150 tower gardens, the team was able to leave behind 200 mesh bags for the newly trained camp residents to use for future food growth. 

For the preschool, volunteers arrived with an abundance of supplies. Aalbu and his wife had packed an entire full-size suitcase with crayons, pencils, coloring books, books and other items crucial to helping young minds create and learn. To show their appreciation, a large group of preschool-age children performed songs and skits. 

While at the refugee camp, the volunteers also visited a maternity hospital to distribute stuffed animal toys to children and their mothers. On average, 400 new births are delivered at this hospital every month — and many other mothers choose to give birth at home. This means the community’s population is rapidly expanding while straining the already limited resources. 

On the final day of their service, volunteers gathered for a “closing ceremony” that included a soccer match between some of the camp’s best players, singing and dancing. 

“It was amazing,” says Aalbu. “It was difficult to leave, actually. There was almost a down feeling. It’s like, ‘Yeah, OK, did we make a difference while we were here? I think so. I think we did. But there is so, so much more that needs to be done.”  

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