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Resettlement from a Ugandan Refugee Camp

College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences undergraduate returns to childhood refugee camp for research

Fredrick Shema, an international studies student from Rwanda, feels a connection to a Ugandan refugee camp that many University of Idaho students probably don’t know exists. The reason: he grew up there.

"I’m originally from Rwanda, but my parents moved to Uganda’s refugee camp when I was 2 because of the genocide in Rwanda. That’s where I lived for most of my life until I got resettled here," Shema said. "My story motivates me and pushes me to make a difference in this world."

Shema said his experiences as a refugee make him feel like he must do something to help refugees form connections. He wants to be the voice of people who cannot speak for themselves.

There were 25.4 million refugees worldwide in 2017, of which 102,800 were admitted for permanent residency to new countries, a process called resettlement, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency.

Shema, a 21-year-old senior, wanted to return to Uganda’s Nakivale refugee camp — where he lived until he was 14 years old — to study the perceptions that refugees, the Ugandan government and nonprofit organizations have about resettlement. In addition, he wanted to find out if the people involved in resettlement understood the process.

Shema worked with Bill Smith, director of the Martin Institute in the College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences, who helped him develop his research plans and find funding for his project.

For three weeks during summer 2018, Shema traveled to Uganda. When a question-and-answer survey of refugees didn’t provide the information he was looking for, he switched to conducting interviews with the help of Erin Damman, a U of I international studies assistant professor.

Shema investigated the criteria the Ugandan government uses to resettle people from their refugee camps to more permanent homes in other nations, the reasons they need to be resettled and the main problems people face in these refugee camps.

The largest hurdle refugees faced while trying to get resettled was favoritism toward those from certain countries, Shema said.

"I figured out that most refugees resettled from the camp were Somalis and Congolese," he said. "As a former refugee, I was really disappointed with this favoritism in the camp. They only resettle some nationalities and others stay in the camp. There’s more than 10 nationalities in the camp, but the only nationalities that really get resettled are Somalis and Congolese."

In addition, he learned the most common reason people need to be resettled is to find food, water and shelter. People eventually left the camps because they no longer felt safe. Shema learned the largest problems were theft, lack of food and healthcare.

"I’m originally from Rwanda, but my parents moved to Uganda’s refugee camp when I was 2 because of the genocide in Rwanda. That’s where I lived for most of my life until I got resettled here. My story motivates me and pushes me to make a difference in this world." Fredrick Shema, an international studies undergraduate

"I did not get to talk to big influencers of resettlement, which was one of my main goals, because, when I got there, they told me I would have to apply for different paperwork to gain access to talk to them, so that was one of my only disappointments," Shema said.

Shema hopes to use his research to figure out what people, including nonprofit organizations and governments, can do to help refugees. He wants to further examine the process of resettlement and work to resolve the issue of favoritism within camps.

Fredrick Shema sits against a glass wall in the Integrated Research and Innovation Center.
Fredrick Shema smiles as he discusses his field work in Uganda.

Fredrick Shema is an OUR Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship award recipient.

Article by Alexis Van Horn, a freshman from Poulsbo, Washington, who is studying journalism and minoring in German and wildlife resources.

Photos by Cody Allred, a sophomore from Council studying public relations.

Published in March 2019.

This project was funded under U.S. Department of Education grant No. P217A180181. The total project funding is $473,143, of which 100 percent is the federal share.

Fredrick Shema grew up in a Ugandan refugee camp. Now he hopes to help refugees have a voice in their future.


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