Meet Three Artists Giving Back to Their Refugee Community

05 December 2023|Chloe Gunther

Amani leads a painting class in Kampala, Uganda

This story first appeared in JRS INSIDER, a monthly newsletter including stories of impact across JRS global.

In Kampala, Uganda, three refugees are helping their community heal and rebuild their lives through art.

Aganze, Peter, and Amani had just finished teaching an art class at the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Community Center in Kampala when they sat down with me for a video call.

Behind the three artists, trees stretched into a bright blue sky and chickens clucked in the background. Aganze wore a JRS t-shirt and Amani had a little yellow paint on his hands.

Aganze and Peter are brothers, and Amani is their close friend. The three of them make-up the team behind Amazing Hands, an initiative to bring art and entrepreneurship into the lives of more refugees.

“Amazing Hands is a new idea that we started after completing the arts and craft course offered by JRS Uganda. Having learned lots of skills and after gaining lots of experience from JRS we decided to extend the same knowledge to other youth and communities,” Aganze said. “[We] came up with this idea of training, mentorship, and innovation to solve the problems faced in communities. It is our joy to see lives transformed by the little help we give.”

Uganda currently hosts over 1.5 million refugees, more than any other country in Africa. Most refugees arrive from South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Somalia, and Burundi.

In Kampala, JRS offers English classes, scholarship programs, basic needs assistance, psychosocial services, and even childcare. Yet one of its largest initiatives is a holistic livelihoods program that includes soft skills training, business skills training, internship placement, business grants, and a mentorship component.

Aganze, Peter, and Amani are from the DRC. Peter and Aganze fled the country eight years ago. Aganze previously shared his harrowing personal story with JRS and still misses his parents. He is not sure if they are alive, but he lives in hope of reuniting with them.

Amani is a proud father of three. He and his family lived in the DRC until 2019 when conflict and violence forced them to flee. He met Peter and Aganze when he arrived in Kampala.

As we talked, I could hear children laughing in the background. Amani explained that children, including his three-year-old daughter, were playing at the JRS daycare.

He smiled, explaining how he shares his love of art with her. “I show her how to use the brush, she really enjoys it,” he said.

“We are all like a family,” Peter said.

Because we know what many people here have gone through, we can show them that hopefully it will get better soon.

The Amazing Hands team also sees art as a way of connecting people within the refugee community and helping individuals cope with the experiences they have gone through. “Because we know what many people here have gone through, we can show them that hopefully it will get better soon,” Amani said. “Yes,” Peter added, “it can help others. If they feel angry or upset, art can help them feel calm.”

Amazing Hands helps people in the community start their own small businesses. Beyond painting, they teach their students how to make sandals, bags, and jewelry which they can then sell, empowering them to create sustainable livelihoods.

“We love seeing the smiles on our students’ faces. We teach them to follow their passions and never give up,” Amani said.

The Amazing Hands team is now working to figure out how they can reach more communities in Uganda. Amidst their goals, they are grappling with the challenge of limited resources and equipment for their students. But, undeterred, they are driven by the joy in their students and their belief in the power of art.

This year, Aganze, Peter, and Amani painted a Christmas scene to share with the JRS/USA community. The painting depicts Mary and Joseph sitting in the Kampala Refugee Camp, holding baby Jesus. People from the community are shown gathering around with stoic and hopeful faces as they gaze upon the new child. Above the family, trees stretch into a bright blue sky, one so similar to the sky I noted behind Aganze, Peter, and Amani.

“It was special work,” Aganze wrote in an email about working on the Christmas card. “We really appreciate JRS/USA and JRS Uganda for giving us this amazing project, it allows us to share a message of hope and resilience.”

“You must never give up,” Aganze said, when I asked what message they would most like to share. “Keep going towards what you are passionate about,” Peter added.

Amani concluded: “Despite the challenges, never give up.”