A Home Away from Home

REFUGEE: somebody seeking a safe place: somebody who seeks or takes refuge in a foreign country, especially to avoid war or persecution

It seems impossible for me to believe this is the “lush” result of the rains that came earlier this month. Standing at the edge of Boqolmayo Refugee Camp in the Somali Region of Ethiopia, all I can see for miles across the flat lands is brown dirt and the naked branches of trees and shrubs long devoid of leaves. Hot, dry winds kick up dust and leave you constantly thirsty. Here and there in random patches, blades of grass that rail thin goats are chewing on have somehow pushed through the rocky earth. Abdi, International Medical Corps Ethiopia’s Gender-Based Violence Program Officer, points to fresh buds on some of the healthier trees and tells me the locals are elated that rainy season has arrived early this year.

“You should have seen this place before the rains came. There was no green at all,” he says. “Luckily the rains arrived early and broke the drought.”

Boqolmayo and its sister camp, Melkadida, were set up to serve the countless Somali refugees streaming across the border into neighboring Ethiopia. Long wracked with conflict, Somalia does not have a stable government or military to keep the peace, creating an environment where civilians are exposed to violence, economic insecurity and a complete lack of basic services. In the past six months, an ongoing drought brought on by weather phenomenon, La Nina, and food shortages have only increased the number of people fleeing their homeland in search of safety and resources.

I had the opportunity to visit Boqolmayo and Melkadida camps to find out more about the resources offered to Somali refugees and what the outlook is for families trying to rebuild in a home away from home. Today, the camps, which have been operating for around two years, are home to more than 70,000 refugees – 30,000 more than they were originally planned for. With hundreds of new refugees arriving daily, UNHCR is in the process of building an additional camp and planning for a fourth.

As Abdi and International Medical Corps’ driver, Farrah, a local Somali, take me through the camps, I see children walking barefoot with nowhere to play, women waiting in impossibly long lines to fetch water for their families and men sitting idly in front of their tents with no jobs and no prospects – refugees are not legally allowed to work in the country. I ask where these families will go next naively thinking this situation could only be temporary. I’m speechless when I’m told that in other Somali refugee camps residents have had to stay for over 10 years, with no chance of returning home and nowhere to go next.

The only chance refugees have for survival is due to the shelter and resources being provided by the Ethiopian government’s Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA), the UN and countless national and international NGO’s funded by public and private donors.

New arrivals at the camps are given a tent to house their family and services including food rations from the World Food Program, protection services from ARRA and UNHCR and water points, nutrition and education services through partner NGOs. ARRA is also providing primary health services within the camps. For our part, International Medical Corps has been providing Gender-Based Violence (GBV) prevention and response services and awareness training. GBV is a problem that has greatly affected this community for a variety of reasons including frustrations due to lack of resources, cramped living quarters, idleness, and trauma brought on by conflict and during flight.

Since September 2009, International Medical Corps has been providing psychosocial support to GBV survivors in the camps and strengthening the capacity of refugees and service providers through training on basic counseling skills and psychosocial care. A total of 49 health and protection service providers, 85 refugee volunteers and over 400 clan and religious elders have been trained on the GBV referral pathway. To improve community awareness levels, reduce stigma, and promote positive attitude and behavioral changes to prevent GBV, International Medical Corps has organized numerous campaigns and reached over 11,000 people with messages and materials developed to educate community members about GBV and human rights.

The services provided by ARRA, the UN and partner NGOs are a bright spot in the otherwise difficult path Somali refugees are forced to navigate. As our car makes its way on the dirt path towards Kobe, the newest camp that is just starting to be built, I wonder aloud how anyone can find their way there without any road signs. Without skipping a beat, our driver, Farrah says, “I’m Somali. We’re never lost.”

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