I met James, an 18-year-old refugee from South Sudan when I visited his home in Bidi Bidi, the world’s largest refugee camp, which is in Uganda. I was on a trip with the international development organisation Action Against Hunger. James had to flee in the middle of night when soldiers attacked his village. He escaped with his brother Wani, 17, and the pair were separated from their parents. They are currently living in their own hut in Bidi Bidi but are being cared for by neighbours from their village who fled at the same time. Rejoice Sunday, who has four children of her own cooks for the brothers every day. “She treats us like her own children,” James said.
Among all the people I met during this trip, I was most moved by James and his brother. They were such polite, friendly and respectful boys. They walk an hour a day each day to get to secondary school. With no end in sight to the conflict in South Sudan, they have no way of getting back to their parents. When I met them I felt angry at the media portrayal in the UK of teenage boys such as James. The UK’s front pages were full of stories demonising boys just like James who had made it all the way to Calais saying young adults were lying about their ages in order to get into the UK. It made me think of my own son and how I hoped somebody would help him if he were a teenager in trouble. James would love to be reunited with his family in South Sudan but he has no choice other than to remain a refugee for now.
In this climate how do we get positive stories from charities into the media?
1 Think of the human angle – people want to connect with other people. When I met James, I wanted to know all about him and his family. By telling the stories of people on the ground, we bring complicated conflicts and situations to life.
2 Use pictures and videos. I took several short iPhone videos while in Uganda such as this one of Agnes, Anet and the group of mothers from South Sudan. The videos were incredibly easy to shoot and the colours and sound bring us directly into the women’s lives.
3 Interview the local staff who can give a real picture of what is going on.
It’s important to hear the stories of boys like James, so PRs that pitch in powerful narratives like this should always think about the personal impact.