Yumbe is incredibly isolated. From Kampala, the capital of Uganda, it took us 11 hours by road to reach Yumbe, which is situated in a sub-region called ‘West Nile’, in the upper northwest of the country bordering the southern part of South Sudan.

My Ugandan colleague who grew up two hours away tells me that before now there was no reason to go to Yumbe – “why would you?” It is remote and inaccessible.

The area itself was not connected to the national grid until a few years ago. And yet, this is the frontline of Africa’s largest refugee crisis; women, men and children from South Sudan escaping a war that has torn their country apart, looking for refuge with their neighbours. Eighty per cent of South Sudanese refugees here are women and children.

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The rains have just ended and the temperature is climbing. It is hot and dusty. All the roads to and from the settlement are unpaved and it takes a very long time to get anywhere.

When we drive to the Bidi Bidi refugee settlement on our first day, we’re told that we will probably miss the start of the settlement unless someone points it out. They are correct. What we see before us is not the formal refugee camp that one has come to expect in these situations. There are no walls, no fences and no barbed wire. Refugees are free to move.

A few have made the long journey to Kampala and some, to other towns in Uganda, but 287,400 people are living in the Bidi Bidi refugee settlement. So many, that Bidi Bidi has now had to close its metaphorical doors to new refugees. New arrivals are now homed at other refugee settlements, where Mercy Corps also works. While refugees are free to move and work in Uganda, often they are trapped by circumstance. Many have arrived from South Sudan with very little, carrying only their children and grandchildren, and in the settlements, they are able to access services that Mercy Corps and other organisations provide. It was in Bidi Bidi that Mercy Corps first began our response to the refugee crisis in the form of emergency cash payments to vulnerable South Sudanese families.

We meet Tabu Night, 60, who received the first Mercy Corps emergency cash payments. Tabu tells us how she and her family walked for days to reach the border with Uganda.

“It was terrible” she says, self-consciously trying to cover up a missing finger on her hand. They were shot at, Tabu says, and a bullet cut her hand, she threw herself onto the floor and then began running very quickly.

“If I had waited there [in South Sudan], I would also die.”

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When Tabu talks about the help she has received from Mercy Corps, she becomes animate. “Mercy Corps helped us survive”.

Tabu and her family received 38,000 Ugandan shillings (£8) from Mercy Corps every month for six months. She used it to buy food for her family and start her own small business, a stall selling items such as dried fish, onions and coffee to others in the refugee settlement. She says she now earns, on average, 20,000 Ugandan shillings (£4) a week from the stall.

Life is still not easy, Tabu’s small house constructed with UNHCR plastic sheeting leaks in the rain and blows off in the wind, she and her husband require medicine because of their advanced ages and the food is never plentiful.

But, through her small business, Tabu can earn enough to feed her grandchildren, and in Bidibidi she says, she no longer hears the gunshots.

When we reluctantly leave Tabu, she calls after us with three mangoes from the stall as gifts, we decline politely and say that she must sell them, she is a businesswoman now.

Amy Fairbairn is Head of Media & Communications, based at Mercy Corps’ European headquarters in Scotland. She has just returned from Uganda

You can ensure the work of Mercy Corps continues. Please consider donating to the Herald’s Christmas Charity Appeal on behalf of the work of Mercy Corps in Syria, Jordan and many other crisis hit areas of the world. See below for details of how to get involved.

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