Running the race for refugees

Running the race for refugees

To mark World Refugee Day, Liz Parker shares how she, Esther and Benjamin joined dozens of runners to raise money and awareness of the plight of Uganda’s refugees.

At the unearthly hour of 6:15am, I drove with our two eldest children and three friends across town to join other keen volunteers in an obstacle race up and down the hills of Kampala to raise funds for Refuge and Hope. There were scores of people at the centre, ready for the 7am start.

Aside from raising money that will benefit Kampala's refugees, the ultimate aim of the race was to give us a taste of the frustration and powerlessness that refugees feel when entering a foreign land and the challenges they face rebuilding their lives there.

(A young inhabitant of Adjumani refugee camp in northern Uganda served by a weekly MAF shuttle service from Kajjansi, photographed by pilot Dave Forney in 2015) 

The Great Escape

At the start of the race, we received papers which we had to keep safe through the journey. As we came to check-points along the way ‘immigration officials’ would demand our papers and decide whether or not we were allowed to continue on our journey. Through the course of the race, our papers got muddy, wet and ripped, and it became harder to convince the authorities to let us pass.

At the thirteen different checkpoints, immigration officials delegated tasks – some as easy as picking up litter, others as hard as crawling through a mud-slide on our stomachs to reach the next ‘border’. Ben was DELIGHTED by this particular task and enthusiastically declared that it was the only time in his life where I had actively encouraged him to get muddy!

'They are only treating us like this to show us that they have the power over us!’ Ben Parker 

Keeping a roof over our heads

At one stop along the way we had to build a shelter with only two branches and a large palm leaf. It needed to be big enough to fit us all in but was actually woefully too small. During the ‘night’ a violent ‘rainstorm’ (simulated by a smirking student energetically throwing a bucket of cold water over us) swept overhead causing our shelter to collapse and all of us to get soaking wet!

The four children in our team were unsurprisingly indignant.  It gave us a real sense of the frustration and hopelessness a refugee family feels when storms and nature destroy everything they work so hard for.

(Though temporary, this shelter in Adjumani refugee camp in Uganda’s northern border with South Sudan is basic but effective. Photograph taken by MAF Tim Manson Country Director for Tutapona Uganda, who are helping refugees through trauma counselling.) 

Water in the way

We had to cross ‘rivers’ on stepping stones, crawl under ‘fences’ without touching the wire, climb over walls, and run through rain-storms created by blasting water from hose pipes. 

We had to fill water bottles with dirty water from a bucket nearby using only a sponge. The task took us a while, only to have an official tip all of the water out in front of us. This blatant disregard for our hard work upset Esther enormously.

‘All that effort for nothing!’ she cried. ‘How could he do that to us?!’

(The vast Sudd wetland is just one of the barriers that fleeing South Sudanese refugees have to contend with as they escape on foot. Picture taken from an MAF plane by LuAnne Cadd)  

'It was an inspiration that will spur us on - to do what we can, where we can, to support and help those who have faced challenges and difficulties including trauma and loss that many of us cannot even begin to imagine.' Liz Parker 

Walking a mile in another family's shoes 

By this point, Esther was feeling a sense of the helplessness a fleeing refugee might face without dignity or respect and totally at the mercy of officials.

Ben summed the whole experience up in a few words – which showed that he really understood the point of our participation in the ‘Race for Life’.

'They are only treating us like this,’ stated Ben, ‘to show us that they have the power over us and we can't do what we want.’

(Rejected: Refuge and Hope's 'Great Escape' race simulates some of the challenges faced by Uganda's refugees to help runners step in to their shoes.)  

Tired but inspired

Four and a half hours later, we were feeling a little tired as we neared the finish line.  Covered in mud and after a long run, with many obstacles, the energy we had earlier in the day was waning!

As I ran the final few meters, my foot slipped down between the slats of a drain cover, twisting my ankle and causing me to limp through the gateway of the centre of Refuge and Hope. But we were jubilant as we posed for our victory photo. It was worth every bit of effort and every slip-up!

We were so glad we used our Saturday morning to be part of Kampala's wonderfully revealing ‘Race for Life’. It was an inspiration that will spur us on to do what we can, where we can, to support and help those who have faced challenges and difficulties including trauma and loss that many of us cannot even begin to imagine. 

Andrew and Liz Parker and their three children Esther, Benjamin and Joel have been serving with MAF since 2009 in Tanzania, South Sudan and Uganda. Andrew Flies the Cessna Caravan into remote and hard to reach areas of Uganda and South Sudan. 

Refuge and Hope are a Christian Organisation based in Uganda. Refuge and Hope’s school, the Center of Hope, began with 12 students meeting in a small room in a heavily refugee-populated region in Kampala. Today, the organisation serves more than 1000 refugees a year and has expanded its programs to include educational, professional, personal and spiritual development programs.