Last week, UK Charity, Opportunity International, opened an outdoor photo exhibition in London, created by award-winning photographer Kate Holt. The exhibition features a series of life-size photographs of the refugees Kate met in Uganda and invites visitors to “spend an evening walking amongst the remarkable individuals.” Hosted by St James Church in Piccadilly it is open daily from 0900 – 1730; entry is free. 

In this Blog, Photographer Kate Holt talks about the inspirational people she met.

Kate Holt is pictured behind the scenes on assignment for Opportunity International in Nakivale refugee camp, Uganda.

It seems a long time ago that we were able to step on a plane without doing a Covid Test and worrying if you would ever be allowed back into the UK if you dared to travel and were able to pay the price of 10 nights in a quarantine hotel.

This trip to Uganda to gather these stories is one of the last I did before Covid struck.

Yet the power of the stories we were told back then, and what I learned from the people I met, is now more relevant than ever.

Since this story, there are now nearly 30 million refugees in the world – with the number rising daily. With the crisis in Afghanistan continuing to unfold, it is estimated that over 2 million more refugees will cross into neighbouring countries within the next year.

Refugees queue for food at Nakivale Refugee Camp, Isingoro District, Uganda.

Ongoing political instability, the effects of climate change increasing populations and proliferation of cheap weapons, have left countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Somalia and Burundi more fragile than ever. Every day thousands of people move across the region – escaping war, famine and fear.

Uganda, one of the more stable countries in the region now plays host to nearly a million and half refugees officially – unofficially it is estimated that nearly 3 million have found sanctuary there.

It is easy to lose perspective on the human face of this crisis when confronted by such numbers.

The refugees we met in Nakivale all had powerful stories to tell of why they had ended up fleeing there, and what their hopes for the future were.

Refugees queue for food at Nakivale Refugee Camp, Isingoro District, Uganda.

Therese fled from the Congo with her children after her husband was killed by rebel soldiers in their house

She arrived in Nakivale with hardly anything because they had to leave their home so quickly.

Therese poses for a photograph in the reception centre that she is living in with her 7 children in Nakivale Refugee Camp, Isingoro District, Uganda.

Living in the reception centre in a small shelter made of plastic, she is lucky if they get porridge once a day or sometimes maize. All she wants is the opportunity to be able to set up a business selling beans like she used to have in the Congo. “I don’t want Aid – I just want a business so I can feed my children and send them to school.”

Therese poses for a photograph with her children in the reception centre that she is living in Nakivale Refugee Camp Isingoro District, Uganda.

Gentil is an artist we met who had escaped from Burundi. He used to run workshops for young artists and was accused by the government of training rebel soldiers, so he had to flee. He now lives with his grandmother and the nephews and nieces who he supports in Nakivale.

Gentil, a 34-year-old artist from Burundi, poses for a photograph with one of his paintings at his home in Nakivale Refugee Camp, Isingoro District, Uganda.

He was able to do financial training with Opportunity International and got a small loan to set up a business farming chickens. He is now able to start painting again and hopes that soon he will be able to make a living from being an artist like he was in Burundi.

He also hopes to be able to motivate other refugees into setting up businesses so they can become self-sufficient and not dependent on food handouts.

Gentil, a 34-year-old artist from Burundi feeds his chickens at his home in Nakivale Refugee Camp, Isingoro District, Uganda.

Bitalie was one of the sadder stories we encountered.

A tailor by profession, she fled from the Congo after her village was attacked by rebel soldiers and her neighbours were all killed. She fled along with her four children, husband and brother’s family into the bush.

She lost them all while running through the night. Eventually, she found her way to Nakivale.

She was alone and wanted to know what had happened to her family so she sold what little food aid she was given to buy a bus fare to go back to Congo.

Bitalie poses for a photograph in her workshop in Nakivale Refugee Camp, Isingoro District, Uganda.

She spent months looking for them but with no luck. But while she was there a local Church gave her an old sewing machine though and she returned with it on the bus.

Being given a sewing machine was her opportunity.

She received financial training from Opportunity International and got a small loan to help her set up a business.

Now she sews and repairs clothes in the camp and has a regular income. Her ultimate dream though is to find her family.

Bitalie uses her sewing machine in her workshop in Nakivale Refugee Camp, Isingoro District, Uganda.

All the refugees we met had all experienced traumatic events, extraordinary upheaval and loss. But they all remain determined to make their lives better by running a business to improve their lives and those of their families.

They aren’t asking for much.

They are asking for an opportunity.

Photos by Eden Sparke at Opportunity International’s launch evening for their Refugee to Entrepreneur exhibition in St James, Piccadilly, United Kingdom.

Footnotes

Text by Kate Holt and photos by Kate Holt (Uganda) and Eden Sparke (London)