Among South Sudan's refugees, thousands of stranded children

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Bakita Juma doesn't like to think about her dead parents because it makes her cry. The slender teenager would rather focus on the woman whom aid officials recently chose to raise her and her siblings on a small piece of earth in what has become the world's largest refugee settlement.

Bakita says she likes her new mother. As for her two younger siblings, it is impossible to tell.

One of the consequences of South Sudan's civil war has been the thousands of children fleeing without parents or guardians, without documentation, often with nothing but treasured possessions like a saucepan or a chicken. It is a humbling sight, even for veteran aid workers who have seen it all.

The children, referred to as unaccompanied minors, pose serious challenges for aid workers who quickly have to figure out what to do with them when they cross the border. Even when the children show maturity far beyond their years, they still need the care of foster parents who are vetted on many grounds, including a clear sense of kinship.

"We have foster banks where we identify potential foster parents and we train them on their roles and responsibilities, on children's rights," said Richard Talagwa, a child protection specialist with World Vision in Uganda.

He said they aim to match children with foster parents who have good character and speak the same language, because "when people are from the same tribe they will always ensure that they take care of their children who come from the same community."

Over 10,500 children have arrived with strangers or relatives who are not their parents and now live in the Bidi Bidi and Imvepi refugee settlements in northern Uganda, according to World Vision, which has put more than 3,000 of them into foster care. The rest have been reunited with family, Talagwa said.

The 15-year-old Bakita and her foster mother, 40-year-old Anyeji Doki, are both ethnic Bari, a minority group in South Sudan with high numbers sheltering in Uganda. Both escaped clashes between government forces and rebels, and share a history of loss and separation that is all too common among refugees.

Bakita's father was killed at the start of the conflict in December 2013, when fighting erupted between rival members of the presidential guard in the capital, Juba. After her mother was killed in 2016, the children went to live with the family of her uncle. But the children were separated from the family during violence in March, and they fled south to Uganda with strangers they met on the way.

On a recent afternoon, Bakita sat facing her foster mother, a tender smile spreading across her face. There seemed to be genuine affection between them, reassuring World Vision officials tasked with monitoring the family.

It all started in March, when Bakita and her siblings Juan and Luka reached a refugee reception center after crossing the border and were discouraged by the long line waiting for a hot meal. Bakita spotted Anyeji and asked her to help.

"I got this mother. This mother is single, she's alone. I asked her, 'Please, you go and help us because there in the place of food they are not allowing us.' So this woman started to help us," Bakita said. "I like this Mama. It's better than staying alone."

Anyeji was separated from her own children last year amid fighting in Juba and has no idea whether they are dead or alive. She has since heard that her husband was shot and killed in Juba earlier this year.

"I am happy because they are good children and I am going to stay with them," she said of Bakita and her siblings. "I am going to take care of them as my own children because my children, I left them in South Sudan."

Anyeji and the children live in a makeshift tarpaulin structure on a small plot of land, side by side with other refugees.

Uganda is now hosting over 850,000 refugees from South Sudan, most of them women and children, according to the United Nations, which has called this the world's fastest-growing refugee crisis. This month Uganda hosts a United Nations-backed summit at which it hopes to raise global awareness as thousands of refugees continue to pour in.

Ugandan authorities have said they need to raise $2 billion to look after the refugees and the local communities hosting them. A lot of that money is needed to protect children like Bakita, who spoke of reduced food rations and the lack of schools in a walkable distance.

Asked what she does to keep herself busy, Bakita said she keeps an eye on her siblings. They play a lot.

"We play, talk about good things," she said. "I am not going to be remembering our Mum and our Dad. If sometimes we remember our Mum, it makes us sad and we cry."