By Published: June 11, 2019

She wants to improve the lives of children living in the world’s second largest refugee camp, which is in Uganda and shelters people fleeing violence and unrest in South Sudan

Laura DeLuca wants to improve the lives of children living in the world’s second largest refugee camp, and is using the 2019 Children, Youth and Environments award from CU Engage to do just that.

subject with two people

Laura DeLuca, at right, is one of three researchers who will spend time this summer working with youth to develop participatory action research projects with the support of Children, Youth and Environment Awards. The other two winners are Anna Segur, staff member in the College of Engineering (left), and Mussie Gebremedhin, a PhD student in civil engineering. At the top of the page is an image from Bidibidi.

DeLuca, an anthropologist and instructor with the Sewall Residential Academic Program, will spend part of August conducting research in Bidibidi, a refugee settlement in Uganda. She will join workers who will interview refugees ages 10 to 24 to learn their needs and then use that information to help improve their lives and living conditions.

“This will give them a chance to voice their own perspectives and share their priorities,” DeLuca says. “It’s about shaping their environment for the future—to help build a sustainable future for them.”

DeLuca says to ensure the changes are sustainable, local organizations including universities and nonprofits will play key roles in the project.   

DeLuca became interested in Bidibidi after talking with the founder of one of those nonprofits, Essie Nakajigo, who also served as a Watson Scholar at the Boulder Chautauqua campus this spring. Nakajigo, who is Uganda’s ambassador for women and girls, started a nonprofit called Living in the Face of Trauma to help children in Bidibidi and elsewhere.

“Essie told me about her project and I thought it sounded amazing,” DeLuca says. “She’s working to solve real life issues affecting humanity around the world.” 

DeLuca, who’s researched and written about refugees for years, says the more she learned about Bidibidi, the more fascinated she became. “I was captivated because it’s so new and unlike the multi-generational camps in Kenya such as Kakuma and Dadaab. Many of the Sudanese refugees I’ve met in Colorado lived in Kakuma. It’s also interesting because Uganda has a unique model for refugees; they’re able to get a parcel of land and to move freely throughout the country.”

National Geographic magazine profiled Bidibidi in its April 2019 issue about the efforts to convert the camp into a livable city, with clean water, health clinics and electricity. 

Bidibidi was a small village before taking in refugees in 2016. Now it’s the second largest refugee camp in the world (the largest is Kutupalong in Bangladesh) with 270,000-plus refugees, most of whom have fled ethnic violence, indiscriminant killing and upheaval in South Sudan, which is wracked by violence and civil unrest.

Researchers say youth make up 25% of the nearly 70 million forcibly displaced people worldwide.

DeLuca says young children, and girls in particular, are some of the most vulnerable among those seeking safety as refugees. “Not only does fleeing take a toll on young bodies, it also poses challenges for young developing minds and educational outcomes,” she says.

“Growing up as a refugee can mean facing increased risk of sexual and gender-based violence as well as discrimination.”

Despite the difficulties surrounding refugees, DeLuca says she enjoys fieldwork. “Of course it’s challenging to bear witness to the stories of refugees fleeing persecution and civil war, (but) fieldwork is one of the most powerful ways to understand the human dimension of problems,” she says. “It’s exciting to immerse yourself in a new cultural context.”

Jennifer Ciplet, director of communications and international partnerships for CU Engage, says the award committee liked DeLuca’s “bottom up approach” to her research and her understanding of the “social complexities” of refugee work in Uganda.

“The selection committee had several excellent applications this year and ultimately chose three Children, Youth and Environment award winners,” Ciplet says.

CU Engage awards around $5,000 in Children, Youth and Environments funds annually to support summer research work with youth. To learn more, visit Children, Youth and Environment Award.

DeLuca is also working with Engineering for Developing Communities faculty and graduate students on other proposals that would enable them to return to Bidibidi.