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Meet Betty Leila, a mother who opened her home to vulnerable refugee children

unaccompanied children from south sudan
© UNICEF Uganda
Jackson sits with her siblings as they have lunch in their compound.

By Proscovia Nakibuuka Mbonye

It is 2:00 pm and Betty Leila a biological mother of five is busy in her make shift kitchen mingling posho (mixture of maize flour and hot water) in a huge saucepan. In her compound are 11 children, some playing and others waiting patiently for lunch to be served. The beans that will be served with the posho are ready and have been set aside. The older girls run to the kitchen to help Betty with preparing the food that has to be served very soon before the young ones start crying. This is their second meal after breakfast.

When asked who the other six children are, Betty is quick to mention that they too are her ‘children.’ They indeed are her foster children but one can’t tell because they are all playing and mixing well as one happy family. Among the children is 16-year-old Jackson Daniel the eldest of the six foster children. Originally from Yei, in South Sudan, Jackson’s life changed one afternoon when heavy shooting broke out in their village while he and his siblings were at school. They lived with their mother and grandmother following the death of their father due to natural causes. Luckily, they all managed to return home but only found their grandmother, as their mother had left to visit a relative. That was the last time they saw their mother and grandmother.

“My grandmother told me to run with my siblings and find a safe place to live,” he narrates. That is how their journey to Uganda begun.

Running and sometimes walking, the little ones followed other families and often got lifts from good Samaritans. In a place called Morobo, some people gave them food and water. He remembers seeing dead bodies littered along the road and his siblings crying on seeing them. “All I told them was to pray and not to worry because I knew that God would help us.”

Unfortunately while enroute, they fell in an ambush but fortunately none of them was hurt. While they hid in the bush the next morning, they met Betty, the mother with a ‘big heart’ as Jackson refers to her. Betty recalls that the children looked very frightened and they didn’t know where to go. She invited them to join her and from that time on they have lived together.

Upon arrival at the reception centre, Christopher Mukota, a Child Protection Assistant with World Vision, says the children were identified as unaccompanied  and considered for the foster care programme. He added that during the various interviews the children stressed that they wanted to live with Betty and not any other person. The foster care programme is supported by UNICEF with funding from DFID and United Nations Central Emergency Response Fund (UN CERF).

Mukota mentions that for Jackson and his siblings, the arrangement used was onspot fostering. He adds that when Betty was identified by the children as a potential foster mother, World Vision prepared her for the responsibility of taking on an additional 6 children, a process each foster parent(s)/family must undergo. Surprisingly, Betty had no hesitation. World Vision also ensured that the plot of land assigned to the children in the settlement, was adjacent to Betty’s to enable her watch over the children well.

“We always endevour to keep the children in a family setting because it supports their growth and healing process.”

“I looked at the children and they had nowhere else to go. Life here is not very easy because I sometimes struggle with providing them with scholastic materials, uniforms, medicines, and sometimes food when our ratios are delayed. But I am happy when they are happy,” Betty says. Betty who left her husband back home, single handedly looks after the 11 children.

It is now a year since Betty opened her big heart and home to the six vulnerable children, with no single report of child maltreatment.

To further support the foster mother, World Vision enrolled her as a caregiver at the nearby UNICEF supported Child Friendly Space (CFS), where her children also go for ECD classes and other age appropriate activities. Her older children also frequent the CFS for psychosocial support through structured activities including life and livelihood skills.

Jackson who is a regular at the CFS confirms that he enjoys the counselling services because the caretakers encourage them to stop worrying promising life will become better soon.

Mukota agrees that the CFS is a like a hospital for distressed children who often come for help and psychosocial support provided by the caregivers.  

Jackson's favorite subject is Geography and dreams of becoming a pilot one day. Jackson keeps a dictionary besides his bed and when asked why, he says he utilizes it to look up difficult words that he does not know.

Currently in Zone 1 where Betty resides, 21 families still await to receive children and 169 families have since taken on unaccompanied minors.

With funding assistance from DFID and CERF, UNICEF and partners continue to identify unaccompanied and separated children and provide them with appropriate family care and support services through establishment and strengthening of community based structures to prevent and respond to abuse, neglect and exploitation against children.

Case workers also continue to visit different children weekly depending on their priority needs. This helps them provide relevant direct assistance including referral to other service providers while ensuring holistic approach to children’s needs.

childre friendly spaces in Uganda
© UNICEF Uganda
A banner hangs outside High City Community Child Friendly School and Early Childhood Development Centre



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