Adjumani, Uganda – Weeks after violence erupted in in South Sudan, Mike Marchar fled for his life. He found safe haven in the Ayilo Refugee Settlement in northern Uganda, but lost track of his family. He doesn’t know whether they are still alive. The carnage he witnessed has stayed with him.

But there is one thing that takes his mind off those horrors: football.

“Football is my life. When I play football, I forget about the past because it keeps my mind occupied. I also make new friends,” said Mr. Marchar.

Some 172,000 South Sudanese refugees have poured to northern Uganda, according to December 2015 figures from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Though they have found safety, young refugees are struggling to move forward with their lives. They have few educational or job opportunities, and many lack role models and social support, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation, abuse and disease.

Mike Marchar, now 22, says football takes his mind off the past. It has also introduced him to new friends and information about making healthy choices. © UNFPA/Eveyln Kiapi

UNFPA is working with partners to offer recreational activities to South Sudanese youth. These efforts – which include sports and drama programmes – not only provide welcome entertainment, but also introduce critical information about their rights and their bodies, helping them make informed decisions about their health and well-being.

“Through the gatherings after the football games, I have learned a lot about how to protect myself from HIV and other STDs,” said Mr. Marchar, who is now 22. “I know how to make the right choices to stay alive.”

A star is born

At two metres tall, refugee Mathew Mach towers over his peers. Like Mr. Marchar, he finds solace in sports, but his game of choice is basketball. “I love basketball. If I am given the opportunity, I could be a good player in future,” he said.

But he is already a star in his community – not because he is an athlete but because he is a volunteer. 

“As a volunteer, our focus is to change the community. So you introduce basketball in a community with many young people… and people gather to watch. After the game, we can pass our messages to them,” he said. “We can inform communities about the dangers of unprotected sex and gender-based violence.”

“Such activities do not only keep young people physically and emotionally healthy… It is also through such gatherings that they build substantial relationships, learn from each other about growing up, body changes and making the right healthy choices,” said Aggrey Aikirize of ACCORD, one of UNFPA’s partners. Other UNFPA partners include the American Refugee Council, CARE and the International Rescue Committee.

“Many girls are also encouraged to take part in sports activities” to ensure they, too, are reached with this information, said John Thon, the deputy team leader in the Ayilo Refugee Settlement.

Young people recite a poem about HIV prevention in Ayilo Refugee Settlement. © UNFPA/Eveyln Kiapi

Dramatic changes

Rose Dadia, a twenty-something refugee in the Boroli Refugee Settlement in Adjumani, loudly refused to cook dinner for her husband after he staggered home drunk. Their fight escalated until the local council was called. Violence of any form is illegal, a community leader reminded them, advising that they resolve their dispute through mediation.

The audience roared with applause. This is how Ms. Dadia and her fellow cast members knew their lessons were well received.

“When we are on stage, we see the crowds laughing and clapping, which shows that they are picking and appreciating the messages,” she told UNFPA.

She is one of 13 members of the Peace Drama Group, which tackles difficult health and social issues with skits, poems and songs. “In our dramas, we send messages to families and communities on the dangers of gender-based violence,” she said. “It is also through drama that we learn how to end violence, as we depict the consequences of violence in the home.”

Some drama group members are also motivated to volunteer in other capacities. Mr. Thon works with many who reach out to pregnant women with information about antenatal care and other important health services.

“Most of the people in the community cannot read and write,” said Mr. Thon, “so we use our local dialects through to communicate our messages to them.”

Their plays and other efforts are having an impact, he said. “We also get a lot of positive comments in appreciation, showing that they have understood the messages.”