Beyond survival

“What is really sad is the huge number of children in every camp. There are children everywhere, with nothing to do. It was one of the worst things I have ever seen: all these children in the desert, in the heat and dust, on the rocks, between thorny bushes, looking out of tents. And what I found most astonishing: they smile at you, friendly, looking at you with open eyes.”

The children described by Fr Frido Pflueger SJ are Somalis displaced by one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises: the most severe drought to hit the Horn of Africa in 60 years, affecting more than 13 million people.

Fr Frido Pflueger SJ meeting refugees at Dollo Ado, Ethiopia (photo: A. Mendes/JRS).

Fr Frido Pflueger SJ meeting refugees at Dollo Ado, Ethiopia. (Photo: A. Mendes/JRS)

Fr Frido saw the refugees when he visited Dollo Ado in southeast Ethiopia, across the border from Somalia. Somalis have long been escaping the civil war that has plagued their country for decades. In 2011, tens of thousands of people left southern Somalia, mostly in June and July, walking for days in a desperate search for food. The drought tipped the precarious balance between life and death in this war-torn region, much of which is controlled by the al-Shabaab militia, an extreme Islamist group.

Many Somalis fleeing the famine headed for Dollo Ado. Although the number of new arrivals has dropped now, hundreds of people are still arriving daily; by early December 2011 there were about 137,000 refugees in the camps of Dollo Ado, mostly women and children. JRS was quick to go to Dollo Ado to see how best to serve the refugees in their new “totally dry and desertlike” surroundings. While basic needs like shelter and food are being met by other humanitarian agencies, the fact that most of the refugees are under 18 immediately suggested educational activities.

After assessment and planning, a JRS team launched a project in Melkadida camp on 1 November 2011, organizing adult literacy classes, skills training and recreational activities such as sports, drama and music, to create a sense of “normality” in the camp. Another project component is counselling, to help the refugees cope with the trauma of displacement, of loss of livelihood and years of insecurity and war. This psychosocial intervention will be based on another JRS project that has been under way for years in Kakuma camp in Kenya.

The decisions about what services to offer reveal that, although intervening in an emergency situation, JRS is looking to be in Dollo Ado for the long haul, considering the chronic instability in Somalia. Apart from giving the children who so impressed Fr Frido something meaningful to do, JRS will offer them and their parents, concrete hope for the future.

Women receive training to take part in a JRS exercise to map the level of education of refugees in Melkadida camp in Dollo Ado.

Women receive training to take part in a JRS exercise to map the level of education of refugees in Melkadida camp in Dollo Ado.

Meanwhile, although rain has come to eastern Africa, the emergency is far from over. In southern Somalia, things are likely to get worse following a ban imposed by the al-Shabaab on major aid agencies in late November 2011. But apart from weather and war, Fr Frido believes there is another cause of the famine: high food prices. “Some say food is being used as a political weapon. Others blame global market speculation; others still the cost of fuel.” Ultimately “it is a homemade famine, because drought is anticipated every two years but nothing is done. External aid arrives and the lesson is not learned. Only 10% of land that can be irrigated artificially is irrigated because the authorities are not interested in helping the people.” In other words, there is scant hope of relief for the long-suffering people of southern Somalia while the current geographic, political and economic constellation prevails.

This article by CJI staff originally appeared in the Winter 2012 issue of CJI’s Mission News under the title “Horn of Africa: Beyond survival.” It is based on an article that appeared in issue no. 52 of Servir, the magazine of Jesuit Refugee Service International. Fr Frido Pflueger SJ, who describes the JRS response to the 2011 famine the Horn of Africa, was the JRS Eastern Africa Director at the time.