An inside job: Working and living among South Sudan’s displaced

June 28, 2016
Written by Kieran McConville
Photo by Kieran McConville

When Concern had to build 10,000 emergency shelters in Bentiu displacement camp, it turned to people like shelter supervisor Isaiah Tuol. He knows exactly what residents need, because he’s one of them himself.

“This was the first one we built — it was a prototype,” Isaiah says, stopping outside a shelter on the corner of a block of similar constructions. “We wanted to see what the community would think.” Officially this is known as a robust emergency shelter and it was designed in consultation with residents of the camp, who would be calling it “home.”

Isaiah and his family are among those residents.

Isaiah Tuol, Concern's shelter supervisor, at the construction of a robust emergency shelter

Concern’s shelter supervisor Isaiah Tuol at Bentiu displacement camp, South Sudan. The shelters were designed by Concern in consultation with the residents of the camp and over 10,000 have been built so far. Photo: Kieran McConville

“We had a good house with a TV and a big garden”

Three years ago Isaiah was a water technician, working with a government ministry in northern Unity State. Married with four children, he supplemented the family income working as a carpenter. “I made doors and would sell them,” he recalls.

In the final days of 2013, conflict overran his village. “There was a huge battle that lasted for two and half days. We hid in the forest.” One of Isaiah’s uncles was killed in the fighting. The family stayed in the bush for nearly a month, terrified to go back home. When they eventually did, the devastation was complete.

“We had a good house with a TV and a big garden,” Isaiah says. “It was all burned down — everything. All my cattle and sheep were taken. There was nothing left.”

A village of tents, tarps — and disease

His wife took their children to the UN base at Bentiu, but Isaiah stayed behind. “It wasn’t safe for a man — if I were seen I would be killed,” he says. “I came slowly along the river. It took me seven days. I was very frightened.” But at last he was reunited with his family in relative safety.

“The significance of having people like Isaiah is hard to overstate… they are living in the context. Their input is invaluable.”

Back then the site was chaotic, with tents and tarps and flimsy shelters crowded together on marshy ground, and with no proper sanitation. When the plan to overhaul the entire site was devised, Concern turned to the community itself for help.

Flooding at the Bentiu base in South Sudan

In October 2014, heavy rains sparked flooding in the camp on the UN base in Bentiu, leaving people as much as waist-deep in contaminated water. Photo: Colm Moloney

“Concern advertised for shelter supervisors and I applied… and got the job,” Isaiah recounts. “This has been a great experience for me. I have learned so much about how to manage and organize. And I’ve learned to speak English!”

By the people, for the people

What Isaiah is not saying is the degree to which his work has made a difference to his compatriots. Over two hundred camp residents work for Concern in various capacities and their input is vital to the success of the work being done here.

“For us to have the chance to work and earn income while we wait here makes a big difference… And when we build a shelter we are proud that we are helping others.”

Gillian Walker, who is Concern’s coordinator in Bentiu, is not so reticent. “The significance of having people like Isaiah embedded in the community is hard to overstate,” she says. “It’s not just that they’re South Sudanese or are from Unity State; it’s the fact that they are living in the context. Their input on what works, what doesn’t, what is important to the community, what’s not, is invaluable.”

How to build a robust emergency shelter in 30 seconds!

Concern master builder Stephen Tutroah Chuol and his team show us how to build a robust emergency shelter. There are 10,000 of them in the Bentiu camp, giving shelter to families who have sought refuge from conflict.

As construction on another batch of shelters gets under way, Isaiah organizes the team of daily laborers who do the building. It’s hot and hard and dusty work, but they attack it with gusto. “For us to have the chance to work and earn income while we wait here makes a big difference,” he says. “When a person has money they have the chance to better themselves. And when we build a shelter we are proud that we are helping others.”

LEARN MORE: Find out how Isaiah, Concern, and a host of other community members built 10,000 shelters in just twelve weeks.

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