Gabriel Nehrbass, Emergency Food Security and Livelihoods Fellow
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.
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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