From Congo to Uganda: Why the war left me no choice 3/3


Elias Nagwano fled his native Congo in 2013. Directly affected by the war, he had to leave everything behind to seek safety in Uganda. From everyday challenges to life-changing decisions, he tells us how he has managed to rebuild his life and realize his dreams despite everything.


Going back to school many years after leaving, leaving your roots behind and starting over in a country where you don’t speak the language — nobody said it would be easy! Nevertheless, I had to establish new roots and integrate into Ugandan society, learn to speak the language like a native, and put myself in a position to choose a profession out of passion, not just out of necessity.  


Humanitarian work — now, that was my passion. During the six semesters it took for me to get my bachelor’s in management of humanitarian organizations, I spent whole days at the university library and long nights debating and perfecting dissertations with my classmates.


The only sticking point was that I had major financial problems. All I had were my savings, which, without a scholarship or a job, were barely enough to keep me going. Then, without warning, tuition fees were raised. I really had to tighten my belt.


Some weeks, on a tiny budget, I battled anxiety, constantly looking over my shoulder. After the war, torture, hunger, losing track of my family, I wasn’t going to give up because of a few shillings. I was lucky enough to be able to count on my classmates, who would slip me 20,000 shillings here, 50,000 there. It wasn’t a huge amount (50,000 shillings is about $15 US), but it helped.


local money uganda


And not all of my compatriots were lucky enough to be able to learn a trade or put a roof over their own heads. I was hired by an association that helped newly arrived refugees settle in Kampala, and during my office hours I met with families in need who were living in the slums. We didn’t really have the resources to give out money or supplies, so we mostly just helped people get settled; we told them where to go to find cheap housing and basic food and how to better manage their budgets. But more than anything, I spent long hours listening to their stories.  Heavy bags of trauma and frustration were emptied at my feet, and my own story replayed itself before my eyes.


Their distress reminded me of my own– but I was lucky enough to know where I was going. I would soon be able to turn my volunteer work into a job, earn a salary and finally help my fellow humans in need. There was only one thing left to do before I got my bachelor’s — an internship.


While I was dropping off applications, I ran into the director of a humanitarian research organization that had just opened in Kampala. He had no employees yet at the time, but was looking for someone to launch a study on the Congolese refugees living in the slums of the capital. Who better to help me? He took me on as an intern, and I took him on an insider’s tour of my community, from one impoverished slum to another. Soon, we were asked to do studies in refugee camps across the country. The projects kept coming and I was hired.


The team grew exponentially in less than a year, and expatriate colleagues from around the world came to work with us. Our objective was to provide aid organizations with the evidence they needed to scale their programs, using a science-based research protocol. We met thousands of people in the slums in our quest to understand what and where the needs really were. Our research influenced decision making within NGOs, at the national level and at the UN level. It’s a heavy responsibility. In the field, I manage a team of 40 people, and I feel like I’m useful to my fellow refugees, giving them a bit of hope and a chance to have their voices heard.  


Slum of Kampala, Uganda, Africa
Kampala, Uganda – Aug 26, 2010: Local woman carries bananas in slum of Kampala. Nearly 40% of slum dwellers have a monthly income of just 2,500 shillings less than a dollar.


My boss and I spend hours discussing asylum policy and migratory flows to better interpret the data we receive. She’s from France, and she has explained to me that in Europe, people are scared of refugees and migrants, that more and more politicians are talking about closing the borders, that expressing solidarity with undocumented migrants can sometimes even be illegal.


While the poor get poorer and the rich get richer, the Old World is afraid of being overwhelmed by the rest of the world’s misery. But when my boss asked if I had ever thought of immigrating to France, I said it had never crossed my mind. Like most of my compatriots, I had found, right here, the only thing I was looking for when I fled the war: safety. Not to mention that the cost of travelling to Europe is well out of reach for most of us.


Europe is shaking in its boots at the idea of being “invaded” by a few tens of thousands of migrants each year, while Uganda alone is hosting more than a million of us. Did you know that more than 90 per cent of world migration is from Southern countries to Southern countries, never touching Europe or North America? Even without the kind of social safety net that is available in countries like France, we can live comfortably in a developing country like Uganda. If I’ve managed to reach that point today, it’s due to my own efforts and to faith.


The church was where I received — and gave– the most support. In the life of a person in exile, faith takes on a whole new role. I was able to forgive my torturers, relearn how to share and find the strength to start working on projects for the future.


In Kampala, refugees from all countries of the subregion are mixing with local communities. Elias investigated, with his team, why some nationalities are less well integrated than others, as evidenced by this graffiti in a slum of the capital. By Louise Thaller, 2018


But most importantly, I met my wife through the church. Her name is Linda. I met her at a service on a day like any other. We chatted a bit. Like me, she’s a Congolese refugee who arrived in Uganda without any family. We liked each other right away, and we spent some lovely lighthearted moments together. She was working in a beauty salon and I was still a student.


During this time, some of her brothers and sisters sought and received asylum in Canada. Thanks to the family reunification policy encouraged by the UN, she was able to go live with them in Montreal. I didn’t have that opportunity, but I was very happy for her, that she could start a new chapter, full of promise and surrounded by her family.


Just before she left, I dared to propose to her. What a joyful moment it was when she said yes! As soon as she could, she came back so we could get married and celebrate in the country that brought us together. That was a year and a half ago.


Photo Kyle Glenn


Not long after that, she had to go back to Canada…but not entirely alone this time! Our son was born in Canada! What a joy! My only regret is having to wait so long before meeting my son. He’ll be six months old soon, and a trip to North America is still out of reach for me; I’m also very busy with work. With my $400 monthly salary, I do all I can to help my wife, who has to raise our son by herself on the other side of the world. When the baby’s a bit bigger, Linda will be able to get a job. For now, the social assistance she receives in Canada is a bit tight, so I send a bit of money when I can to support them both.


When I’ve saved up enough money, I’ll join them. Maybe I can start a new life in Canada and work to help refugees, like I do here. Or  maybe I’ll get a master’s degree in the US or in Europe, to get an even better job in international cooperation. Or maybe my family and I will be able to go back home to the Congo one day. For now, I feel at home here in Uganda. 



In collaboration with Lou Thaller


Translated from French Ruby Pratka


This article was funded thanks to your donation.
Help us with our work.



  • Elias Nagwano

    Elias Nagwano (who uses a pseudonym) is from a prosperous family of traders, in Congo. In 2013, the 25 year old had to flee his country and take shelter une Uganda. There, he rebuilt his life and is now engaged in an NGO where he works with others exiles in Kampala.

  • Show Comments

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

comment *

  • name *

  • email *

  • website *

You May Also Like


Asylum in Canada: the Newcomer’s Fantasy

John has fantasized a lot about Canada. But reality is slightly different.


Mohamed’s Fight 1/4

Iraq: to be born on the wrong side of the tracks.


Story of a “White Russian” Woman 1/2

Fleeing Russia for France. Itinerary of a refugee countess during the XXth Century.