21st century being shaped by the plight of refugees

  • September 12, 2015

DOLLO ADO, ETHIOPIA - Fifty-one year old Somali refugee Abdi Mahdi is one of about 25 students taking an English class offered by the Jesuit Refugee Service in the Kobe refugee camp, about three kilometres from the border between Ethiopia and Somalia.

He’s also one of nearly 42,000 refugees in this particular camp, one of more than 200,000 Somalis gathered in five refugee camps around the tiny Ethiopian town of Dollo Ado, one of 255,000 Somali refugees living in Ethiopia, one of 1.1 million Somali refugees scattered through the world, one of 2.3 million Somalis driven from their homes by the terror group Al-Shabaab. He’s also one of 14.9 million refugees in Africa and one of 59.5 million refugees, asylum seekers and displaced people worldwide.

It’s hard not to look at Abdi and read a grim script for the rest of the 21st century. It’s hard not to imagine that the global population of refugees, almost as large as the population of the United Kingdom, will not shape this young century. This vast, desperate host spread across Africa, the Middle East, Asia and South America, is knocking at the doors of Canada, the United States, Europe and every other safe, stable country asking for nothing extraordinary — just the opportunity to resume their interrupted, suspended, frozen lives. It’s a knock that frankly scares us.

Europe quakes at every poor Eritrean or Somali or Syrian or Iraqi that lands in Greece or Italy, or sets out for the European heartland through Hungary and Austria, or dashes through the Channel Tunnel that connects France and Great Britain. Already in 2015 close to 400,000 migrants have reached the European Union. More than 2,700 others died trying, including three-year-old Alan Kurdi, found washed ashore in Turkey, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

Every day, the global number of refugees and people displaced by war or famine grows by 42,500. That number has almost quadrupled in five years. More than half of them are children.

At the Kobe refugee camp, there’s no chance Abdi (in the Horn of Africa first names are used he way last names are applied in the West), is going to actually learn to converse in English. In the best of circumstances, learning a language above the age of 50 is an uphill climb. Now imagine you grew up in a nomadic culture, driving your family’s herds from pasture to pasture with the changing seasons. Imagine you never went to school for any significant period of time and never acquired the skills or habits of literacy in your first language. A second language, completely unrelated to your first, is going to be tough.

Abdi has three realistic hopes for this class in the world’s dominant language. One is that he learns to phonetically master the Roman alphabet. This would help him to read signs and instructions when his own language is written in the script. It would help him fill out forms if he ever had a chance to apply for resettlement in another country. Second, he hopes to be an example to his nine children and two wives. He knows their future lies in a world very different from the one he grew up in. Third, he would rather be a part of the good side of life in the camp — the side that maintains hope and stays close to the Jesuit Refugee Service.

There is a bad side to the refugee camp. After 6 p.m. all the aid agencies — from the Ikea Foundation to Doctors Without Borders to the International Committee of the Red Cross, dozens of them — are sent out of the front gates and into their compounds. Ethiopian police take their place and patrol the dusty tracks between rows of identical tin shacks.

The refugee camps around Dollo Ado have been there almost five years. In that time the NGOs, under the watchful eye of the Ethiopian government, have turned them into model camps with drinkable water, regular garbage pick-up, recreation facilities, schools. As I walked from one program to another inside the JRS sections of the Kobe and Melkadida camps, chatting with teachers, social workers, community organizers, I peered out toward the rows of one-room houses, glimpsed the market street, saw people trudging through the camp, slipping in and out of their front doors where clumps of children were gathered.

The Melkadida camp houses 45,000 people, about the population of North Bay, Ont. However, nobody would build a city in the middle of the desert, let alone five of them. And nobody would choose to live in these hot, dry, dusty places. They are one-industry towns in which the NGOs are the only employers and almost all the employees arrive on the United Nations Humanitarian Air Service’s Bombardier Dash 8.

The citizenry — most of them women and children — is almost uniformly idle and bereaved. They are there because of famine and terrorism. They mourn their missing children, husbands, mothers, fathers, homes, flocks and ways of life. As they sit in their camps, most of them know their culture, everything they ever knew, has disappeared from under them.

Young people who play soccer, volleyball and foosball, others attending classes to learn a trade or skill, peer counsellors talking through family and community issues of addiction, abuse and depression — they all display gusto, seriousness and dedication. The alternative is sitting in a tin shack staring at the dirt floor from sunrise to sunset.

I’m not surprised when they greet my camera with both fascination and fear. Though the big telephoto lens reminds many of a gun, they know I’m there to peer into their lives. They’re not anxious to be the subject of another foreigner’s curiosity, even though every new face they encounter offers a break from the monotony of camp life. The children want to see themselves in the screen on the back of my camera. The adults turn away. They want to see themselves somewhere else, living some other life.

Some men have gone into business selling khat or miraa, a natural, amphetamine-like drug in the form of the leaves of the khat (also pronounced chat) bush. Chewing the leaves creates a heightened sense of awareness and excitement, along with insomnia and loss of appetite. Prolonged use can cause hallucinations. It’s not highly addictive and has been a part of social culture in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula since before Ethiopians discovered coffee around the 14th century (they noticed how goats became more perky after eating those beans).

In the context of the camps, however, khat is pernicious. For men with nothing to do all day but chew khat and sometimes drink alcohol, khat fuels a sense of frustration that leads to beatings of wives and children, and fights with other men. It also leads to debts and blackmail.

This is a stretch of semi-arid desert that never did support more than a few families and their goats and camels. The hot wind picks up the sand and throws it in your face. The first night I rolled over on my mosquito net and woke up covered with red bites. Showers were not always possible in the morning because, as miraculous as the camp water system is, it never works all day long. In the current drought, it fails more often than it works.

If these are the deprivations of a visiting journalist who was being pampered and guided by an NGO, imagine living in a tin shack, carrying water in jerry cans, cooking outside on a fire built from the thorny branches of acacia bushes, day after day, for years.
As I walked, or was driven in the Toyota Land Rover, through the camp, I was constantly aware of the privilege I had been given to witness these lives in this place. I was allowed to see the love of these people for their children and for their own lives. And their unexpected hope.

The Jesuit Refugee Services’ psychosocial counselling teams are one of the main sources of stability in this context. In group discussions and individual peer counselling under the direction of a professional social worker, the JRS confronts addiction and abuse. But the teams also deal with the despair and frustration behind the addiction. Members of the counselling teams include volunteers and “incentive workers” who collect a small, part-time wage and receive training. More important than the money is the sense of purpose and self-esteem the incentive workers can claim.

Most of the JRS programs concentrate on youth in the camps, where the population is overwhelmingly young. Abdi with his two wives and nine children is typical. There are plenty of men his age with three and four wives. Families sprawl into dozens of children. Given the additional medical care inside the camps, child mortality is low and these traditional family structures are even larger than they would have been in Somalia.

In each of the two Dollo Ado refugee camps where JRS is present, the Catholic agency serves between 12,000 and 15,000 refugees each year. The JRS’s first project when it arrived at the Melkedida and Kobe camps was to build schools, which were turned over to Ethiopian authorities to run. The JRS followed up with building and running multipurpose community halls, which have become home to an all-day, every-day stream of barefoot, pick-up soccer games. JRS volleyball nets and basketball hoops also get near constant use. A pavilion with foosball, ping-pong and pool tables attracts kids all day, particularly in the summer months. The JRS keeps young people connected to a wider world with an Internet cafe.

Where the JRS’s engagement with young refugees is most visible and most hopeful is in vocational classes it runs — a class in the basics of plumbing, another in fashion design and tailoring, another dedicated to hairdressing and esthetics, a barbering class. Each of these is brimming with young people who don’t want to waste their summer vacations, young mothers trying to further their educations while caring for their families, young men trying to do a little better than the crowd hanging about on the camp’s market street.

Ethiopian law forbids refugees from any legal form of employment. And in this tightly controlled society, illegal employment is not an option. Refugees need police authorization just to visit another camp. No permission is granted to leave the camp and apply for jobs in a country with 30-per-cent unemployment.

From a distance, it might seem odd that the Jesuit Refugee Service is one of the most popular and respected NGOs among a refugee population that is 100-per-cent Muslim. For newly appointed Ethiopia country director Fr. Atakelt Tesfay, the trust they’re shown is a sign the agency is doing what it’s supposed to be doing.

“Our mission is to accompany them,” he said. “In a way, to give them life.”

The JRS is not in the business of proselytizing. Many of its employees in Dollo Ado are themselves Muslim, but the JRS preaches the Gospel by demonstrating how Christ would respond to refugees, Atakelt said.

“For Christ, it’s not the Christianity but it is the humanity,” he said. “The concern of Christ is for humanity, justice, peace.”

The JRS is not Christian by accident and not Catholic just by the way, said JRS East Africa director Fr. Endashaw Debrework.

“Our difference lies in our uniqueness, based on the Gospel and the social teaching of the Church — and then our spirituality as well, the Ignatian spirituality which nurtures our mission, our work,” he said.

“In this entire saga of refugees, if there is no hope there is no life,” Endashaw said. “So everybody struggles to make sure that tomorrow will be better.”

From the crest of one of the rugged hills overlooking the Kobe refugee camp it’s difficult to see hope, Gospel values and better tomorrows. The desert-bound rows of shacks are entirely dependent on daily support from a distant world that is quickly losing interest. These Somalis, like millions of refugees in Africa and the Middle East, confined in their camps, waiting for something to happen, were briefly in the news when they were discovered starving as they fled Al Shabaab militants in 2011. These are the true victims of perverted, violent religious sentiment.

But the complexities of their story are difficult to grasp and harder to get across in a world that boils down its news to 12-second video clips, five-word headlines and screen shots posted on Facebook and Instagram. The global refugee population is being driven by forces more intractable than religious intolerance, bad political choices, collapsing regimes and border flare-ups between unstable countries. The Earth’s climate is also creating refugees and putting them in situations not easily solved, Jesuit Refugee Service international director Fr. Peter Balleis said.

“The Darfur conflict is also about water, you know,” said the Dutch Jesuit. “If the Sahara progresses to the South, people move more towards the Darfur mountains where there is more water. The environmental context and the economic poverty is there.”

The world’s biggest refugee crisis — the four million people on the run from the Syrian Arab Republic and 7.4 million forced from their homes inside the country — also had a clear, identifiable environmental trigger. Syria endured a four-year drought leading up to the Arab Spring. Nearly a third of Syria’s 10 million rural inhabitants were reduced to extreme poverty. Damascus and other cities were filling up with ex-farmers and herders who had lost everything. When a small protest began in Damascus in the spring of 2011, the situation quickly snowballed and the Assad regime reacted with force to a situation it could not control.

For the most part, the world’s growing refugee problems are concentrated along two bands where exploding population, rapid urbanization and shifting climate are putting additional pressures on feeble governments. One band begins in the Middle East, in Gaza, and runs through Beirut, D ama s c u s , B a g h d a d , Tehran and on to Kabul and the Pashtun territories of Pakistan. The other skips along the southern edge of the Sahara, the region known as the Sahel. From Mauritania through Mali, Niger, Chad, Sudan and down into Somalia.

“It’s also a fact, and we need to talk openly about it, these are predominantly Islamic countries,” said Balleis. “There is a dimension of how religion plays a role in politics.”

Balleis understands people’s wandering attention to this crisis. Nobody can live on a diet of other people’s agony day after day.

“Do we want to see every day the fighting scenes from Syria? From Aleppo?” he asks. “On the other hand, it’s sad that the world is not any more aware that Aleppo is in a terrible state.”

Balleis does not believe the refugee problem is unsolvable, or that refugees will define the 21st century. He sees the problem solved daily on an individual level, little by little, through relationships formed between refugees and JRS staff.

“Every little action or deed can be an element to contribute to some solution,” he said. “People do not forget easily who helped them… Maybe those people being helped today might be the best bridges to the Middle East tomorrow, and feed something back into the Middle East that they learned from our societies.”

There’s no telling what will happen to Abdi Mahdi, his two wives and his nine children. But he may well remember being a part of something. He will have faced the future even in the bleak situation of the refugee camp, and his wives and his children will have watched him bravely look forward. He will not forget what he received in friendship.

Nor should we.

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