Inside a Refugee Camp

Gabriel

Gabriel Nehrbass, Emergency Food Security and Livelihoods Fellow

Kobe, Ethiopia

August 17, 2011


Allow me to give you an idea of this past weekend.  Imagine a continuous dust storm that distorts your vision and blows into your nose and mouth as you breathe. Envision a rusty red and light yellow desert with thousands of white UNHCR tents peppered evenly as far as the horizon.  Picture parents with sadness in their eyes and children without a smile as you pass them.  This is Kobe refugee camp.  It is where the 24,000 recently arrived refugees have been resettled.  There are two other camps already at capacity (more than 40,000 people in each) and one scheduled to open later this week to accommodate the increasing refugee population.  The refugees are from different parts of Somalia, with different cultures and dialects. 

DSC_1709_91647 (1)Kobe Refugee Camp in Somali Region, Ethiopia  Photo Credit: Michael Klosson

Many children and adults are sick.  Most are skinny and malnourished due to both their escape and the drought that is plaguing the region.  They don’t even appear to have the hope or energy to talk.  However, approach a man, woman or child and smile, offer your hand to shake theirs and say “hello, how are you” in some broken Somali and at once their facial expressions revive.  Hope shines through their eyes and they become quite animated.  You get a glimpse of who they are and what they have left behind. 

Just weeks ago, the people in front of me were teachers, farmers, shop owners, pastoralists, and traders.  Some of the children attended school, some didn’t, and some worked herding the family goats and sheep.  They had family lives, dreams, hopes and aspirations like you and me.  Now they are dazed.

In the refugee camps there is nowhere for the children to play or be safe, and there are strangers everywhere.  Who actually lives in the camp and who comes from the surrounding areas is difficult to determine at this point.  During the day, many children hide in their family tents.  Some venture into the desert bush surrounding the camp.  Who knows what can happen to them there.

The transit center is even more jarring.  Children walk through trash and human feces.  Some are defecating in front of everyone, on top of heaps of discarded plastic and other materials.  Children are emaciated.  Makeshift tents of cloth strewn across branches give little refuge to the newcomers.  The families will be in the transit center until they receive refugee status documentation.  This may take days or weeks.  People are in shock from their displacement.  There is no telling what happened to them over the past couple weeks.  What did they see?  What pain did they endure over their journeys?  Who did they lose?  What from their experience will weigh heavily on them for the rest of their lives?  How long will they be in the camp?  How long will the drought in East Africa continue?

Visit one of our nutrition tents and the knot in your heart intensifies.  The children are so skinny you can see bones everywhere their clothes do not cover.  Most just have a blank stare on their faces and do not notice you.  Others lift their heads slightly and just gaze weakly.  No smiles.  I wonder how many children didn’t make it to the tent.  I pray that the ones who are nourished back to health do not relapse in the coming months. 

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Ibrahim’s Kindness

CAROLYN_MILES_HEAD_SHOT_062001 Carolyn Miles, President & CEO-elect

Dadaab, Kenya

August 15, 2011


As I meet with children and families here in the sprawling refugee camps of northeastern Kenya, I hear amazing and harrowing stories.

Yesterday we visited the original refugee camp called IFO – a part of the camps that has been here since 1992. We drove up a dusty red sandy road to a thick fence made from gnarled tree branches. Inside the fence was a family of 10, living simply in two tiny mud and stick structures with few possessions. But this was no ordinary family.

It was led by Ibrahim, a thoroughly generous and engaging man with much hardship in his life. He came from Somalia in 1991 during horrible fighting in his country.

Ibrahim

He settled in the original camp with his wife and young son after a tough journey of hundreds of miles. Ibrahim later lost his wife and four of his children to disease. He remarried though and had 6 more  children. He and his wife also care for many more children in his area of the camp.

As we talk, his children come to sit on his lap, next to him on an old can or peek out from behind his back. You can tell how much they love him. He tells me, "God gives back to those who do something for others, especially children."

But what makes Ibrahim such a special man is that he and his wife, despite being very poor, have taken in yet another two childrenA 13-year-old mother and her newborn baby girl who arrived two months ago from Somalia after their own grueling journey. Ibrahim and his wife agreed to be a foster family for the teen mom and baby as part of Save the Children's child protection program.

Despite having so little, they share what they do have with others.

More to come tomorrow…

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Easing Fatima’s Pain

David Klauber David Klauber, Save the Children Intern   

Melkadida Refugee Camp, Ethiopia

August 1, 2011


I looked into her eyes and if only for an instant, I was able to feel something of the weight of her pain.   The look of despair she wore has aged her far beyond her years; and yet she’s only a girl of thirteen.  When she told me, “the pain is so bad sometimes, I can’t sleep at night,” I found it hard to remember the next question to ask her, let alone to say it. 

When she lifted up her long patterned dress just enough to expose a foot, ankle, and shin that swelled to more than double the size of her other leg I realized that the look on her face doesn’t even begin to describe a modicum of the hardship she has faced in her short life.

Her mother told me that her daughter’s condition began nine years ago when she was only four years old. This condition began in a previous life in Somalia, and has followed her into the refugee camps of Ethiopia. She has been living in the Melkadida refugee camp for the last 16 months.

I can’t walk because it hurts so much,” she told me. “I can’t go to school. I stay around the tent.  Sometimes I wash clothes.”  She concentrates deeply for a moment and then for a second she brightens: “Oh, and I help look after my little brother and sisters.” But her stare then returned to the ground by her side, and her smile dissolved.  

Fatima and her family fled their home in Balad-Hawa, Somalia, because of the growing violence in and around their town. “That, and there was little food,” adds Fatima’s mother, Kada. “But we were lucky- we didn’t have to walk to Ethiopia. We rode on a donkey cart.  It took three days.”  Kada says. “Thanks to God, first that we have peace here in this place, no conflict, no war, no fighting. But again, the first thing that we require is treatment for my daughter. If she can’t get treatment here it would be better to just go back to Somalia.”

You’ve met Fatima because Save the Children’s child protection volunteers identified her a month and a half ago and have been conducting household visits ever since. The Child Protection program (operating now in three of the refugee camps) works to identify and register unaccompanied minors, separated children, and extremely vulnerable children to provide them with emotional support through linkages to foster families, counseling, and referrals. In Fatima’s case, Save the Children will refer her to proper outside medical treatment, funding her transport and medical bills. 

“I just want to get medicine and treatment for my leg,” Fatima told me. “Only that. Then I can go to school.” My heart sunk and my throat tightened.  But I do feel hope for her…there is definitely hope.

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Protecting the Youngest Victims of the Food Crisis

David Klauber David Klauber, Save the Children Intern   

Kobe Regufee Camp, Ethiopia

July 27, 2011


Today while half of the team here on the ground was focused on the operation of our Blanket Supplementary Food Program (BSFP) in the Transit and pre-registration Centers, the rest of us turned our attention towards mobilizing our Child Protection program in the Kobe refugee camp. As we drove the 45 miles to Kobe, I began to anticipate a rather surreal experience at returning to this camp.

When I last visited Kobe in early June, one could not have really called it a camp-it was still just a site, merely a large empty space with a few plots marked off by lines dug in the sand. It’s difficult to believe that within a month’s time of it opening (June 24th) it had reached full capacity.

Today there are 24,934 refugees living in Kobe, 88% (21,952) of which are under the age of 18 years old. We arrived and found the recently barren place transformed into a living, breathing refugee camp, overflowing with children.

Two colleagues and I weaved our way through the endless columns of tents. There were hundreds and hundreds of these small white domes that serve as the refugees’ only defense against the brutal environment of the exposed desert plain. Vicious winds periodically kick up the layer of red dust that coats the landscape. One must be quick to shield their face otherwise breathe a nice hardy mouthful. 

As we observed the countless children of Kobe wandering about in these awful conditions with really nothing to do, it became so apparent to me just how urgent the need for Child Friendly Spaces (CFS) is in this environment.

These spaces are an integral component of our Child Protection intervention in all the refugee camps as they provide children with safe zone/structures where they can take a break from the harsh environment and unstable situation. In this protected environment they can play, make art, express themselves, and perhaps most importantly, return to some degree of normalcy after being uprooted from their home and previous life. The child friendly zones also serve as screening mechanism for Save the Children caretakers to identify children in need of additional support or referral to medical services

By the time we left Kobe, the team had secured several sites, contracted local workers from the host community to begin construction, met with the committee of refugee elders/administrators to select community volunteers to help run the program, and put together a training schedule for both Save the Children staff and volunteers. In just two to three more days our child friendly sites sites will be operational and the kids here in Kobe will have a chance to be kids again.

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Audio Update from Ethiopia

Dhheadshot Dave Hartman, Save the Children, Internet Marketing and Communications Specialist

Westport, CT

Thursday, July 21, 2011


In this podcast Duncan Harvey, Save the Children’s Deputy Country Office Director in Ethiopia, Michael Klosson, Vice President for Policy and Humanitarian Response, and Charles MacCormack, President, describe the worsening situation for children affected by the epic drought in the Horn of Africa and what you can do to help children children survive until the rains come.


Live from the Field: East Africa Food Crisis by Save the Children

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Learn more about our response to the food crisis in the Horn of Africa.

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Arriving at Dolo Ado

David KlauberDavid Klauber, Save the Children Intern   

Dolo Ado, Ethiopia

July 20, 2011


Today I visited the Dolo Transition center just outside of town where nearly 10,000 newly arrived refugees are waiting to be transported to the camps located 55 miles away. Ideally, refugees would pass through this site in just a few days but the unfortunate reality is that it is taking as long as 10 to 15 days. Transport has slowed because the three existing camps are already at full capacity. 

The third camp, Kobe, opened less than four weeks ago, already holds 25,000 people and cannot take anymore. As a result the population at the transit center continues to swell by day and the need for the most basic of services (food, medical attention, shelter) is increasing exponentially.

Last Monday, Save the Children began a supplementary food program at a site that provides meals to all children under 5 years old. I entered our large feeding tent and was surprised to feel a large smile emerging on my face; there was a sea of tiny children sitting on mats scooping porridge out of bright yellow and red mugs. They were honestly some of the most adorable children I have ever seen. 

Even with the realization that the meal we were providing for the them was just a first step in meeting their most basic of needs, I have to admit to feeling a true sense of relief, an inner joy at watching them eat.

After seeing only fear and exhaustion on the faces of these little ones for the past two days, witnessing a smile here and there inspired an indescribable sensation within my chest: something inside me was no longer clenched as tightly as it had been before.

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