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Finding common grace in a Ugandan refugee camp

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Every day we receive innumerable blessings from God. We receive these blessings apart from our individual standing before God or our membership in any faith community. These blessings are rooted in God’s creation itself. They are a form of what the Reformed theologian Abraham Kuyper called ‘Common Grace’:

The divine covenant in the Mediator in turn has its background in the work of original creation, in the existence of the world, and in the life of our human race. As individuals God’s children belong to the community of the saints. But that community of saints also consists of children of men, born of a woman by the will of man. Consequently they are interwoven and interconnected with all of human living that originated in paradise and continues in its misshapen form even after humanity’s fall from God.

Neither our election nor our attachment to community of saints negates our common humanity, nor removes our participation in the life of family, homeland, or world.

These blessings are easy to miss or overlook because of their ‘commonness’, their everydayness, and their ubiquity. These temporal, spiritual, and institutional blessings only become apparent when they become conspicuous by their absence. The institutional blessings that I and many others in the developed world enjoy became suddenly conspicuous to me reading the recent National Geographic story by Nina Strochlic on the Bidibidi refugee camp in Uganda,

A great experiment is under way in Uganda. An industrial skyline of water and cell towers hovers over sturdy mud huts and small farm plots. Schools and health centers are built from brick, slathered in concrete, and fitted with glass windows. Taps run freshwater, and small solar panels power streetlights, as well as radios blasting music from barbershops, televisions airing soccer matches in community halls, and cell phones snaking from charging stations in shops.

In camps around the world, refugees live crammed in tents, makeshift shelters, or metal dwellings. They’re restricted by laws that make work and movement outside the camps impossible. Even in well-planned camps such as Azraq in Jordan’s desert, the starkness of life without jobs or a sense of belonging sends refugees back to Syria or forces them to try to earn money in dangerous, under-the-table arrangements.

In Uganda, under one of the world’s most progressive policies, those who’ve fled civil war in South Sudan can live, farm, and work freely. Here, Bidibidi’s future is discussed at the highest levels of government and the international community. The goal: To build a livable city out of a refugee camp, one that might endure even if the refugees can return home someday.

The institutional blessings of the rule of law, private property, and contract so often stripped away from refugees when they find themselves displaced are increasingly being restored to the refugees in Bidibidi,

Uganda has transformed the majority of Bidibidi’s schools and clinics into permanent structures and installed a water system. Unlike many refugee camps, which are isolated and gated, Bidibidi merges almost seamlessly into its surroundings. The refugees’ homes, surrounded by corn, peanuts, and sesame plants, are nearly identical to those in the Ugandan villages between the camp’s five zones. When—or if—the South Sudanese go home, Ugandans will use the new schools, health clinics, and piped water.

With those institutional blessings secured poverty can be transformed into prosperity and persons can truly flourish,

Long-term stability means shifting the refugee-camp paradigm from humanitarian aid toward private industry. A California-based think tank called Refugee Cities is lobbying refugee-hosting governments to build development zones that could draw foreign investment. “If you create the legal space in which economic activity is allowed and people are given basic legal stability, you can unleash tremendous dynamism that ultimately creates prosperity,” founder Michael Castle Miller says. “Not just for people there—but throughout the country.”

The people of Bidibidi should remind us all of our own overlooked everyday blessings and inspire us to do all we can to help secure our neighbor’s inheritance of God’s common grace.

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Dan Hugger Dan Hugger is Librarian and Research Associate at the Acton Institute.

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