HOCW was founded in 2010 in Uganda, but our story begins ten years earlier in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
It was around midnight when Bolingo Ntahira fled Rutshuru, his home in the North Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It was the year 2000, and the region had been plagued by violence since the early 90s. Bolingo, then in his mid-20s, managed to cross the Ugandan border in Kisoro. Like many fleeing from conflict, he had nothing—no money, no clothes, no connections.
In Kisoro, Bolingo made his way to the police station, where he sought transport to Kampala. In Kampala, he thought, there were people who could help refugees like him, a support system to help him get settled. He waited four days for transport. By day, he walked freely around the city, telling his story to strangers. By night, he returned to the police station and stayed in their prison cells, often sleeping beside criminals.
When he finally arrived in Kampala, he found himself at another police station, this time in Nakasero. He slept there for almost two weeks before he was told, “This isn’t a refugee camp, you can’t stay here”.
He was then directed to Old Kampala Station, a police station that worked directly with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR). When Bolingo arrived, he was told that he couldn’t enter the refugee camps set up around Uganda, as he didn’t yet have the proper status. He could apply for refugee status, but that process could take months.
Bolingo, looking for a place to sleep, was told about a broken-down bus, where a group of refugees had supposedly been staying. Men, women, and children—about sixty total—from all different countries were living and sleeping on this bus, where water and adequate sanitation facilities were scarce. Bolingo spent his nights on the bus and his days walking around Kampala telling his story to people and learning as much of the local language as he could. He made connections with fellow refugees and locals alike. One of these connections was with Father Anthony, a priest sympathetic to the plight of urban refugees. He formed a fast friendship with Bolingo, and the two worked together to create Agape Penda la Mungu, a foundation that funded a refugee transit site in Ndejje Central Region. Bolingo became the house manager of the site, maintaining a cooking and cleaning roster of the residents and managing the day-to-day of the site. Bolingo worked with Father Anthony until 2005, after which he worked for a similar organization, Promotion of Education and Refugee Rights in Uganda.
In 2008, the idea of Hope of Children and Women took root. In the beginning, HOCW was one house and a garage-turned classroom, offering only English classes. HOCW has since grown into two compounds, expanding its services to include many trainings such as business and computer, as well as social entrepreneurship ventures. Having come a long way from his time at the police station in Kisoro, Bolingo says his goal is to not only help other refugee-led organizations find their footing but to create a network of these organizations so that refugees can form the necessary connections to lead a successful and fulfilled life in Uganda. He maintains that the best and most effective model is one for refugees by refugees.