LUBEC — Last month, I found myself sitting in a makeshift church in northern Uganda with nothing but mud walls, logs for benches and mere sticks holding it all together – a far cry from the comforts of my Lubec home.

I was on a two-week assignment to teach leadership skills to farmers in Uganda’s Bidibidi refugee settlement through the humanitarian organization Catholic Relief Services, as part of the federally funded Farmer-to-Farmer program. Home to more than a quarter of a million South Sudanese refugees, Bidibidi is one of the largest such camps in the world, with a population four times the size of Portland.

Life at Bidibidi is harsh: New arrivals are registered, assigned to zones and given food, tents, clothes and farming tools – plus 30-by-30-foot plots to build their own huts. These are people who have fled life’s worst atrocities, yet are expected to start life anew.

Over the course of 14 leadership sessions, held inside makeshift churches, I was able to speak with more than 350 refugees, covering topics from communications to conflict resolution.

During one of these sessions, I was particularly struck by a 31-year-old farmer named David. Standing up to address the group, he explained that before he left South Sudan, he worked in a laboratory. Losing everything – including his professional identity – has forced him to learn how to be a farmer, which has been a difficult transition.

“We don’t have much here,” David said, his quiet grace filling the room. “But what we learned from you gives us hope. This is my best day at Bidibidi since the first day we arrived.”

On this World Refugee Day, I am reminded of that moment with David in the church. I think about the plight of so many refugees around the world who are reinventing themselves in the face of an uncertain future.

David’s sentiments harken back to something Teddy Roosevelt once said in 1916 to inspire America’s then-largely agricultural population — “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” I first heard that quote in 2005, when I attended Washington County Leadership Institute as a then-resident of Machias. Since then, over seven assignments in Africa to train farmers’ cooperatives in leadership skills and group dynamics, I have repeatedly referenced those words.

Yet despite the undeniable resilience of the refugees I’ve met over time, these people need more than their own grit in order to thrive. Uganda is unique in its openness and hospitality toward refugees, but as the conflict in South Sudan drags on, its resources are stretched thin while international funding is declining. So while hope is embodied in the refugees themselves, we have our own part to play as members of the international community to support them.

For instance, it’s thanks to the U.S. government that the Farmer-to-Farmer program exists. Started by an act of Congress in the 1980s, Farmer-to-Farmer is an international agricultural mentoring system. At the request of host communities, U.S. volunteers provide technical assistance to farmers, agribusinesses and other agricultural institutions in developing countries. The program covers assignment expenses, so all volunteers need to spend is their time. The overarching goal is to strengthen communities through agriculture. Teaching refugees new skills – such as leadership development – could mean all the difference to their success as they re-start their lives as farmers.

Unfortunately, U.S. foreign aid is in jeopardy. The administration has proposed cutting foreign aid 24 percent in the next budget, a cut that could eliminate the Farmer to Farmer program entirely.

I urge our Maine congressional delegation to resist those cuts. They would be counterproductive to our interests. Foreign aid helps refugees become self-reliant. David, and so many others like him, are a testament to that fact. They know they have a mission – just like the American farmers did back in Roosevelt’s day: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” It’s a hopeful message for refugees, whose futures are, by nature, transitional. It’s also a directive, a chance at something better. Isn’t that the least we can give them?


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