By Chris Hughes
By the time twin brothers Jacob and Esau made it to Kampala, Uganda, the young men had already endured a lifetime’s worth of struggle.
As teenagers, they fled from their native South Sudan after the country gained its independence in 2011, and internal factions began fighting over control of the government. In 2012, Jacob and Esau found themselves right in the middle of the fighting, a moment that would change their lives forever. “They attacked us,” Jacob said of the rebel soldiers. “They started shooting the vehicles. They shot a friend, who started bleeding. I felt like we were the next to die.”
Away from home and without any other options, the two boys ran, leaving their home and their family without even a chance to say goodbye. They have not seen them since.
The twins got a life-saving break when they discovered a convoy sent by the Ugandan government to rescue its own people from the conflict. “We had to sneak in with their citizens,” Jacob said. The Ugandans knew that they did not belong, but covered for them until they reached the border.
“It was a desperate journey,” Jacob recalled. And it was one that would continue, even after they reached the relative safety of Uganda.
They tried but were unable to track down relatives in South Sudan, and later learned that their father had been shot in the fighting between the warring factions. They never heard for sure, but presume he is dead.
In 2013, the internal turmoil in South Sudan erupted into full-blown civil war. An estimated 300,000 people were killed and more than a third of the population (4 million people) were displaced, including at least 1 million people who, like Jacob and Esau a year earlier, left the country.
Situated in the center of Africa, Uganda is a magnet for refugees, which are freely accepted from the impoverished and war-torn countries surrounding it. Today, almost 1.5 million refugees live in Uganda, making it the top refugee-hosting country on the continent and one of the top five refugee-hosting countries in the world. Unlike many other countries that host refugees, refugees in Uganda are free to leave camps and settle elsewhere. Many head to the country’s capital, Kampala, a city with a population of about 1.6 million.
Jacob and Esau headed to Kampala in hopes of improving their situation. But their hopes were tenuous at best as they found opportunity but also more difficulties. Like refugees worldwide, they had big dreams, and were even lucky enough to get a sponsor to pay for their schooling in South Sudan and again in Uganda. The school also provided them a place to live. They finished “senior six,” the equivalent of a high school education.
But once they graduated, they were required to leave the school. “We ended up on the street,” Esau said. “We had nowhere to sleep.”
Street life is rough, especially for untrained immigrants. Over one-third of young adults in Kampala are unemployed, and the streets are filled with desperate people. “They come and beat you and steal your property, just the little you have,” Esau said.
The twins sought refuge in the many 24-hour nightclubs in Kampala, which at least provided a little respite from the harsh realities just outside the club doors. “We would just go there and spend the night to be safe,” Esau explained. “It was just to survive, to not be arrested, to not be attacked by robbers at night.”
But the streets were also where the twins found good news by way of a tip from other refugees about a place called Refuge & Hope. Founded in 2004 by Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel Jade and Shelah Acker, Refuge & Hope provides emergency assistance and other services to all refugees. Ironically, the ministry was founded to rescue nine child soldiers and street children from what is now South Sudan.
With more than 50 staffers, Refuge & Hope has grown to offer a holistic ministry to refugees needing help finding jobs, housing and social services. The center sponsors young children in local schools and offers GED certification to older ones. It also offers a broad curriculum that teaches adults English, employable skills, entrepreneurship, business finance, practical life skills and more. Approximately 1,000 students enroll each year in classes at Refuge & Hope.
At Refuge & Hope, Jacob and Esau found a new calling as the center expanded its ministry to refugee children and youth. “Instead of just loitering around the street being idle, I thought, ‘Why don’t I come and volunteer?’” Esau said.
Eventually, Jacob and Esau started volunteering every day with the youth department. They especially like to help the younger refugees.
They were particularly struck by the way the youth, many of whom were from ethnic groups that were at war with one another in their home countries, came together as friends at Refuge & Hope. “We have different people from different countries—Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Congo,” Esau said. “You find a Muslim learning the Bible. You find a Christian who wants to know about Islam. They create harmony in that place. They end up calling each other brother and sister.”
Through Refuge & Hope, the brothers began mentoring young people in the many ministries of its youth department, including a children’s camp, a talent show, music, cultural dances and Bible studies. One of the most transformative projects offered at Refuge & Hope is its annual peace conference, where youth from many ethnic groups and nations spend several days in a retreat, learning about tolerance, reconciliation and peacemaking.
After a long and difficult sojourn, Jacob and Esau found something else they longed for—a home, in more ways than one. Shelah Acker soon learned that the twins were sleeping in the on-site youth office, rather than risking their nights out on the streets. She got to work, finding a place for them to call their own. “I know it might not be a pretty place, but at least we have somewhere to put our heads,” Jacob said.
“This place just feels like more than a home to me,” Esau said of Refuge & Hope. “Shelah is just like a mother to me, and Jade like a dad.”
Now, after enduring so much hardship—from South Sudan to Uganda, from war to peace, and from migrants to a home—the twins are brimming with hope about their futures. “Four years ago, I think I was that little boy with shattered dreams,” Esau reflected. “When I look at that and compare it to my situation right now, I think all of my dreams are being brought up to reality.”
“When I look at Jacob right now, he had the dream of being a doctor. He is pursuing that dream, and indeed it’s happening,” Esau declared proudly.
Esau is also pursuing his own dream of working in international relations and diplomacy. “One of my goals is really to reach refugees,” Esau said. “I’ve been in a conflict zone. I’ve learned a lot about conflict resolution—how to resolve it and how to handle it amidst any situation. And those skills have been so helpful to me that I was able to train other youth in conflict resolution.”
The brothers take every chance they can to support the ministry that saved them and help the refugees traveling the same road that they were once on themselves. With the cloud of the COVID-19 pandemic enveloping the globe, Jacob and Esau used their gifts to help protect the community. “We gave back to the community when the virus first hit the country,” Jacob said. “We did our best to educate our fellow refugees to hand-wash and keep safe.”
In an effort to raise money and awareness for refugees, Esau participated in a bicycle fundraiser, called Ride for Hope. The ride is a two-day, 100-kilometer ride. “We wanted to involve the new youth at Refuge & Hope, to inspire them, to share with them our stories, and to make them see the platforms they can have,” Esau said.
Though their journey is one marked by struggle, it has included many blessings—the kindness of a Ugandan migrant convoy, the chance tip that led them to Refuge & Hope in the first place, and the faithful presence of Jade and Shelah Acker. Without them, it would be difficult to imagine Jacob’s and Esau’s dreams becoming a reality.
“It has been a journey of miracles,” Esau shared.
“I believe that God is shaping us to be what he wanted us to be,” added Jacob. “I just know God placed people in my life. And these people have given me glimpses of the Savior, they have introduced me to Jesus, bit-by-bit.”