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A Lost Childhood

Too many children are being forced to abandon their homes and school every single day. They live in poverty, risking their lives and futures simply to survive. 

By ChildFund Australia

Mary* was just a child when her world fell apart. At 12, she became the sole carer to her two younger brothers, David* and John*, after fleeing war-torn South Sudan. In less than a year, she had lost both her parents.

Every year, 43.3 million children around the world are displaced because of war and violence – nearly half are child refugees and asylum seekers. The trauma and loss they experience is unfathomable. Like so many children and young people in refugee camps, Mary, now 17, has already experienced tragedy.

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“There was war in South Sudan. That’s why we came to the [Palorinya] camp,” recalls Mary, who escaped with her family to northern Uganda five years ago. “My father died when I was younger.”
Mary’s father was killed in South Sudan’s conflict and upheaval, which saw armed groups commit rape and sexual violence, destroy property, rob entire villages, and recruit children into their ranks. Mary's mother, seeking safety, fled with her children to the Palorinya refugee camp across the border.
“We came on foot to Palorinya and were given a plot of land to live on,” says Mary.

A refugee camp is a hard, dangerous place to be a child


At Palorinya, Mary and her family were assigned a small plot of land on which to construct a housing compound and raise a small vegetable garden. It was safer than a conflict zone, but the family faced extreme poverty. They lived in a shelter with one mattress and their monthly rations of beans, flour, salt, and oil didn’t feed one person, let alone four.

Soon after the family’s arrival in the camp, however, Mary’s mother returned to South Sudan. “She went back to our farm, but we have not been in touch. We only heard that she re-married when she returned to South Sudan,” says Mary, who has spent most of her childhood as her family’s caregiver.

Mary’s story is common across Palorinya, where more than 122,000 South Sudanese refugees face a daily battle to survive. It is not unusual for parents in these communities to leave camp in search of food or work opportunities, sometimes for long periods of time. While many return, this is not always the case. For children, this means fending for themselves and taking on responsibilities far beyond their years.

How your donation can help


Mary is one of thousands of children and young people who have been displaced in Uganda and who are living without adequate food, care and shelter. Many live in constant fear and uncertainty of what the future holds.

The donations of ChildFund supporters in Australia and around the world are helping to provide three Child Friendly Spaces in the Palorinya refugee camp where children can learn, dream and stay safe from violence as they navigate their new life. Each space includes a classroom, toilet and playground.

ChildFund-trained male community leaders and members in Palorinya are also helping to protect the rights of girls and keep watch for at-risk children in the camp. The Male Action Group has had a life-changing impact on Mary, who received a visit from her local group two years ago.

“The group advised me to return to school,” recalls Mary. “They told me that while things are hard now that I would have a brighter future if I can just complete my education. I know now that education is important to me because no one else is helping us. If I do not study, who is going to help me?”
After discovering her living conditions, the Male Action Group also built a second house on Mary’s small plot of land so she could finally have privacy and a space of her own.

Throughout Palorinya, there are so many more children like Mary at risk of the violence and exploitation that are rife in the camp. More support is needed to sustain the Child Friendly Spaces and help protect children and young people. Now that Mary is in school, she can’t work as much, which has severely affected her ability to afford food and, consequently, focus on her studies.

Build more safe spaces

“During school days, we don’t have breakfast,” says Mary, adding that porridge is a special treat, reserved for weekends and only if they have flour. “I do well in some lessons because I have learned to adapt to this situation, but it affects my performance in class. If I had the opportunities that other children had, I think I would perform very well.”

Life in the refugee camp is still a struggle for Mary and her brothers. But they feel safer, are attending school regularly, and finally believe that things will get better.

Your support can help children and young people pursue their dreams and have the childhood they deserve.

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*Names have been changed to protect individuals’ identities.