South Sudanese Student Describes Life (And Food) In Refugee Camp

Chep Makur Chuo spent 12 years in a Kenyan refugee camp before moving to Australia in 2005 to study engineering. He recently contacted WFP via Facebook to say thank you for the food assistance he received during his time at Kakuma camp. He says it allowed him to build a future for himself and his family.

ROME -- Chep Makur Chuo was so grateful for his chance to study abroad that he contacted WFP a few weeks ago to say thanks. Intrigued, we asked him to tell us his story. He agreed and, over the phone, gave us this interview.

1. Tell us about yourself

I am a South Sudanese refugee, now living in Perth, Australia. I am the first born in my family and I am here in Australia with my mother, siblings, as well as my children. 

2. How did you come to be a refugee?

I lost my father during the war in South Sudan. He was a major in the army until he was killed in 1992, which then left my family very vulnerable. After his death, all of our crops and cattle were taken. In search for a better life, my mother walked for months through Ethiopia until she reached Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya. She built a small shelter there and then came back for us after two years.

While she was away, we had nothing. I lived with my grandmother in our village and even when we had food, we only ate once a day. Sometimes, all we had was a little bit of milk. Sometimes, not even that.

We didn’t even know if my mother was still alive. People who left the village were getting killed. Those who tried to leave, gave up and would come back with terrible stories. When she came back to the village to get us, we then went to the refugee camp where we lived for 12 years before coming to Australia.

a young Chep Makur Chuo with two friends in the kenyan refugee camp

3. What do you remember about growing up in refugee camp? 

The first thing I remember about the refugee camp was our mother cooking dinner for us from the food rations. I was eight years old at the time and wanted to carry our bag of wheat flour, but it was too heavy, so my mother had me carry the oil instead.

The WFP logo was another lasting memory I have of the camp and it stayed with me for the whole time there. It was a daily part of my life for 12 years; whether while at home eating our rations or at school eating a bowl of rice and beans.

When you are a refugee, you have nothing. No money, no food, no land. You depend on other people for everything and you never know what is going to happen next. Your whole life feels temporary.We knew that there were people around the world who knew about us and wanted to help. Without them, a lot of people like me would not have made it.

4. What was school like in the camp?

When I arrived at the camp, I could not read or write. You cannot go to school when you are hungry; you must have something in your stomach. Without WFP providing food, we would not have been able to study.

Since WFP gave us porridge at lunch all the way through high school, this made sure that we kept coming!

5. What were your favourite subjects?

Math, physics, and chemistry. I received my high school certificate while in the camp. When I came to Australia, all I needed were a few college-prep courses and I was ready for university. The entrance exams were difficult, but I passed and now I am about to graduate with a degree in electrical engineering.

People do not believe me when I tell them all that I learned in the camps. It was not easy and I couldn’t have done it without the food. They served rice and beans not just to little kids, but I kept receiving school meals until I received my diploma. There is no way you can pass a physics exam if you’re hungry. It’s just too hard!

6. What do you want to do after you finish studying?

I am in my final semester and will finish my engineering degree in June 2012. After that I hope to return to South Sudan to build a school and library in my village. In the future, I want to work for a charity organization that helps our people achieve what I have.

The reason that I am studying electrical engineering is because I want to help build my country. It is a new country and it needs young people who are smart and full of energy. We have had many challenges, but we’re ready to build our own future.