Lily Peter Rhino Refugee Camp, Uganda

“Now when we wake up, we have hope.”

Started Her Business in October 2018

When you walk into Lily Peter’s restaurant in the northern Uganda Rhino Refugee Settlement, the smell of caramelized onions and simmering beans fills the small, dark space with a welcoming aroma. Lily moves easily from checking the teapot on the shin height stove to cutting tomatoes at the nearby table. She has high, prominent cheekbones and a smile that easily illuminates the dim space where she prepares food every day with her two business partners, Jane and Asuku. 

For two years, Lily lived in this refugee camp with no sense of purpose. She rose each morning and made porridge for her five children and the three orphans she cares for, collected firewood, and then waited for the day to end. Her husband abandoned the family when she fled South Sudan during the height of the war in 2016, which made life even more difficult. Lily found many challenges when she arrived in Rhino Camp; treating her sick children was difficult and finding funds to send them to school was impossible. She had no income, consumed only one meal a day, and like most refugees in the northern Uganda camps, she was dependent upon the beans and corn UNHCR distributed once a month. 

“Before I came to Uganda, I had a restaurant at home,” Lily recalls with fondness. “It was more beautiful than this one,” she says while tilting her head upwards. “I had capital back there.” For five years, the Civil War in South Sudan has created division and unimaginable destruction. The total number of deaths from the violence is comparable to the war in Syria, where the mounting death toll is 510,000 people. In some cases, entire villages have been destroyed. Women have been raped. Children have been left malnourished, uneducated, and at risk of abuse. Due to the ongoing conflict in South Sudan, more than one million people have fled to Uganda for refuge. This statistic includes Lily and her business partners. 

“I can’t go home because there’s still war,” Lily explains while unfolding an official Ugandan Government issued document printed with a picture of herself and each of her children. It’s a document that states Lily’s status as a refugee. It’s a tangible representation of the limbo she and many other refugees live – it symbolizes their displacement and transitory state. How do you begin a life again in a foreign environment? How do you create a home and earn money?

Lily cooking

Lily cooking for customers.

That feeling of hopelessness and being immobile began to dissipate when Lily received the opportunity to begin a business with Village Enterprise. Lily, Jane, and Asuku opened their restaurant in October 2018, after receiving their first grant from Village Enterprise. It’s a business that their fellow refugees appreciate because Lily and her partners are known for making the best food in the area. “Refugees can run businesses,” Lily explains, “they just need capital. We have the skills. We’ve done this before.” 

The three used the first grant to begin renting the space and cookware and to buy the ingredients needed to make the food. After just a few weeks, their business is growing. “When we make food in our restaurant, I feel proud to see people eating my food,” Lily professed. On an average day, the three business owners serve around twenty customers. “Now when we wake up,” Lily begins, “we have hope.” 

Lily is using her earnings to buy vegetables in order to give herself and her children a more balanced diet. She said that she realized her life was changing when she was able to afford salt. Another big change is that she can now pay her children’s school fees. In the future, once they have enough savings, she hopes to build a restaurant with her fellow business owners so they no longer need to rent. “We want to run a good restaurant, and then eventually we’ll open a second one.”