This Guy Helped Hundreds of Refugees Before His 18th Birthday

How one kid and a soccer ball made a difference for Uganda’s urban refugees.

(Photo: Courtesy Sedrick Marhula)

Nov 13, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Celeste Hoang is the Film & TV Integration Editor for TakePart.

Sedrick Murhula was 17 when his mother packed up the family’s belongings and drove him and his six brothers to the border with Uganda. It was 2007, and they were fleeing their hometown of Bukava, a city in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Marhula had witnessed years of violence, beginning when the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi people spilled over from neighboring Rwanda and ignited a war in DRC that would kill an estimated five million people. Villagers were taken into the forest and killed; women were raped en masse; soldiers stormed homes, murdering entire families. Murhula says he vividly remembers seeing dead bodies strewn along the streets, and cars and houses being bombed.

“My mom was so scared,” he recalls. “We were always afraid something was going to happen to us.”

With the help of relatives and missionaries, the family made its way to Kampala, the capital of Uganda. But with Murhula’s arrival he was given a new identity, one he wasn’t prepared for: refugee.

“I never dreamed of going anywhere—I had dreams of studying and getting married and doing stuff in my own country,” he says now. “I never had plans of leaving.”

Life was “chaos,” he recalls, as the family shuffled through temporary homes, sleeping in churches and later in a tiny room with a single mattress. School tuition was too expensive, so he took free English classes (the colonial language of Congo is French) offered by a local nonprofit. Some neighbors were hostile, insulting him because he couldn’t speak Bantu, and refugees from Rwanda and Burundi often saw those from DRC as competitors and potential enemies.

“You feel 100 percent a stranger,” Murhula says of life as an urban refugee. “Even though you’ve made it here, you don’t feel safe.”

Murhula realized there was virtually no support in Kampala for families like his. The city was home to 50,000 refugees and just one aid organization dedicated to helping them; he remembers his family waking up at 3 a.m. to go wait in line just to schedule an appointment for three or four weeks later.

“I thought, ‘This is not a life.’ Everyone was discouraged and didn’t have hope for their future,” he says. “The question was, how could I stop this?”

So Murhula started recruiting friends and turned to the one thing he felt could bring people from all different backgrounds together: sports, specifically soccer. But he couldn’t even afford to buy a soccer ball, so he spoke to local priests, who donated one and let the kids play on fields at a Catholic church. After a few weeks, word spread, and more than 100 refugees of all ages started to come out and play.

Soon Murhula started holding meetings under a tree, where he and other young refugees could sit together and discuss ways to improve their lives, including conflict management, HIV prevention, and alternatives to prostitution for girls and women. Eventually he and his friends Robert Hakiza and Kefa Mayanga, also refugees of the war in DRC, made their organization official, calling it Young African Refugees for Integral Development.

In 2010 YARID opened an office in Kampala, where today eight volunteers work on a variety of projects supporting refugees, including vocational and business training, English classes, and sports. Murhula is particularly proud of the Women Empowerment project, which encourages women to report instances of rape and abuse, while providing them with classes on HIV/AIDS prevention, maternal health, and more.

In 2012 Murhula resettled in San Diego, where he manages the organization remotely, working at home and in cafés. His primary focus is development—raising funds and resources from the U.S. while traveling to universities and high schools to speak about global conflict and life as a refugee.

Murhula hopes to see YARID become a major organization helping refugees everywhere, and to raise enough money in support of that goal that he can return to his home in DRC and support the new generation of youth.

“I’m fulfilled and proud to see a positive change in the lives of those who were desperate and hopeless by giving them the opportunity to be the person they want to be tomorrow in society,” he says. “I want to be the voice of voices unheard.”