Most mornings, before the heat of the day sets in and the dust isn’t too bad, a stout Somali man with gentle eyes ambles through the alleys of this refugee camp. He ducks into tents and sits on the edges of beds and just listens.
He listens to girls like Leila, a stick-thin 15 year old who tells him what it’s like to raise her four siblings since her mother disappeared and her grandmother died.
He listens to old men, like the one who is squatting in the dirt, washing his wife and children’s clothes – a job no Somali man usually does. He listens to the man tell him his wife is sick and he’s out of money and options.
Abdul Rashid Adan Ibrahim is a spectacular listener. He does more than listen, he absorbs. When he sits down next to them, they let go some of their pain and he takes it on. They know they can trust him. They know he’s like them, stuck in the same God forsaken camp they are.
What they don’t know is that this middle-aged man who spends all his time patching up the shattered lives of others, has one of his own.
Like everyone here, Abdul Rashid never dreamed he’d be a refugee. He grew up in Merca, Somalia, a white-washed city that leans out over the Somali coastline. In its heyday, Merca attracted tourists who curled their toes into the white-sand beaches and sipped Italian coffee at the city cafes.
Abdul Rashid’s father owned a fruit farm outside of town. The irrigated farm with its advanced canal system produced bananas that his father exported to Italy. As a boy, he traveled to Rome with his father, where he dined in fine restaurants and tasted life in a cosmopolitan capital.
Abdul Rashid followed in his father’s footsteps and studied agriculture at Afoole University in the 1970s, a time when Mogadishu was in its salad days. In the capital, spotless, palm-lined streets and public gardens bloomed with bougainvillea under which friends strolled. Women dressed modestly, but weren’t veiled like today. Back then, you could drink a beer at the Jazeera Club and then catch a taxi over to Cinema Super to catch Clint Eastwood in The Good the Bad and the Ugly, dubbed in Italian.
The future looked bright for Abdul Rashid. He married a woman with a big smile and kind heart named Maimoua. They started their family as Abdul Rashid found work as a contractor for the World Food Program while consulting for international NGOs on the side. They had a nice house in Merca and, he says proudly, he owned a boat.
But in the 1980s, political cracks started to fracture Somalia’s peaceful façade. Frustrated with a military government, armed opposition groups started to appear. In 1991, after President Siad Barre was overthrown, clan ties became politicized more than ever. That’s when Somalia began its slow slide toward chaos.
Throughout the fighting and the rise and fall of governments, Abdul Rashid persisted. He was respected and a go-to negotiator in Merca. While working for humanitarian organizations, he knew how to joke and cajole and make the armed groups happy. A sack of millet here, a little cash there.
During the early 2000s, he started working for an American NGO, directing their food distributions to 28 villages near Merca. For eight years, he and his right hand man, Abdul, a calm, articulate man who had worked with him for years, received shipments of World Food Program food at the port in Merca. They transported the food to the warehouse and then distributed them to Somalis in need.
But a few years ago, things took a turn for the worse when an armed group refused to let them distribute the food themselves. Everything, they said, had to go through them.
Abdul Rashid was worried.
Not long after, someone showed him a video. It was Abdul; someone was holding his head up by the ears. He’d been beheaded.
Abdul Rashid was beside himself. He’d known Abdul for years and considered him a close friend. He knew his wife and 11 children. He also knew he was next. He left Merca immediately, walking out of town on the trails farmers used for livestock. He fell in with some nomads and walked with them for through the night more than 30 miles – not easy for Abdul Rashid who rarely missed a meal. As he walked under the stars, he wondered if he’d ever see his children again. He wondered if the thugs would go after his family, after Maimouna. He eventually got cell phone service and called a relative who sent a vehicle to pick him up and he headed for Badare, a town in Western Somalia.
Back in Merca, the thugs who killed Abdul hit the airwaves: Abdul Rashid is ours. If you see him, bring him to us. They rolled up to his house, guns at the ready. Where is he, they demanded. “He left yesterday, and he didn’t come back to us,” Maimouna said. They loosed off a few rounds above her head, then started rifling through the house, turning the place upside down. They looked under the bed. They looked in the latrine and in the cupboards. When he didn’t turn up, they trashed the place. Then they went outside and waited for him to return, holding the house under siege. They set up roadblocks and searched vehicles to make sure he didn’t sneak back.
Maimouna knew she had to get the kids out. Six of their children were at home at the time, including Saman, who Abdul Rashid had dug out of the rubble 12 years earlier after her parents house was attacked in a bout of fighting. Her parents dead, Abdul Rashid and Maimouna took her in and she’s been their daughter ever since.
To smuggle the kids out, it was a family affair. Relatives mustered up their courage and approached the men ringing the house. Grandmothers took the girls out one by one, saying they needed to get their skin decorated with henna. Old men took boys to the mosque. One by one, Abdul Rashid’s kids escaped. Eventually, Maimouna did too. They paid for a vehicle and drove to meet Abdul Rashid in Bardere, Somalia.
Abdul Rashid and the family made their way to Doolwo, Somalia, a place near the Ethiopian border where he thought they could wait things out. A few days later, a text message arrived. “Wherever you go, we will find you. Even if you go to Kenya, we’ll find you.”
Get your clothes, he told the kids, We’re leaving.
That’s how he ended up here, in Bolkomanyo, a 44,000 person refugee camp in Ethiopia. His wife was shocked. A wind as hot as a hair dryer never stopped blowing. The tarpaulin they lived under was a far cry from their comfortable house in Merca. Everything about the camp bothered her – the scorpions, the bland food, the kids coated in dust, the mosque made of sticks, the wrinkly vegetables, the idea of being a refugee. She was inconsolable.
She didn’t utter a word, Abdul Rashid said, for three months.
For days, he and the kids took turns watching people come and go from the water pump, waiting to see someone they knew. Surely, someone from their former life, one of Abdul Rashid’s many friends or colleagues, had ended up here. For a week days, they waited.
They didn’t recognize a soul.
It all became too much for Abdul Rashid. Maybe out of embarrassment, maybe out of shock, he did the mostly unSomali thing: He became a recluse. He didn’t talk much with others, he kept to himself. For a year, he drew his cocoon tighter around himself and didn’t let anyone in.
Then something changed. He must, he decided, make the best of this. He can’t sit and stew in his own worries. His children look up to him, he needs to be there for them, no matter the circumstances.
He started volunteering for Save the Children’s child protection program in the camp. He quickly became the head of a child protection committee, one of 25 in the camp. He supervises 23 volunteers who document cases of child protection issues and work with families to educate them about the dangers of child marriage and the importance of education. It’s everything from talking to parents about bathing their children to dealing with issues of domestic violence.
As one of the best English speaking refugees, as a college graduate, Abdul Rashid has a lot to offer. He put up a blackboard in his tent – by now a two room shanty that now has a garden in back where he has planted trees – and he reached out to idle teenagers in the camp. He’s broken the teenagers into three classes by their abilities. He sends them home with worksheets to study. If they pass his quizzes, they will advance to the next level. Students know that English could help them get a job with one of the many NGOs in the camp.
Nobody pays Abdul Rashid to do this. He uses a little of his $45 monthly salary and his own time.
His children – especially Saman – speak excellent English and wonder aloud to Abdul Rashid what the future has in store for them. Where will they go to high school? College?
“They are thinking of it,” he says, “but I can do nothing.”
His voice catches.
“Just a moment,” he says, collecting himself.
This isn’t easy. The proud college graduate, the world traveler, the man who keeps a laminated copy of his resume in English on hand just in case, has tears in his eyes because he doesn’t know how to educate his kids.
“Never in my life,” he says, “did I think I’d become a refugee. I’m wasting my time here. I’m also wasting my children’s time. Let them go somewhere else instead of wasting their time in this stony place.”
Uganda. Tanzania. Rwanda. He and his family sit in their home and dream about these places. A place where Saman can go to high school. A place where Abdul Rashid can find a job. They’ve been here four years and never set foot outside the camp; they try not to think about how many more. Word in the camp has it that cell phone service is coming soon. Maybe then he’ll be unable to talk to the outside world. Until then, he’ll throw himself deeper into working for Save the Children. It feels good to have a purpose in the camps, he says, to have something you can devote yourself to. It takes his mind off things that are out of his control.
“It’s nice,” he says, “to have a connection with people.”
Save the Children has the largest presence of any international NGO in Dollo Ado, in the southern Somali region of Ethiopia, both in the refugee camps and in the hosting community, with more than 400 staff and over 600 volunteers currently on the ground. Operating from its main sub-office in Dollo Ado town, Save the Children has over 20 years experience of working with the pastoralist and agro-pastoralist communities of Dollo Ado in food security, livelihoods, health, nutrition and water, sanitation and hygiene promotion (WASH) interventions.
Save the Children has been responding to the influx of refugees from Somalia since 2009. In response to the significant influx of refugees since July 2011, Save the Children scaled up the refugee emergency response in all the existing and new camps and currently has operations in all five refugee camps and the Transit Centre in Dollo Ado. Our work builds on partnerships with UN agencies, the Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA), various Implementing Partner organizations, as well as the refugee and host communities in a variety of sectors including Child Protection, Emergency Primary Education, Early Childhood Care & Development (ECCD), Nutrition and School Feeding Programmes.
Save the Children is currently running a total of 23 centers across the five Refugee Camps and the Transit center (3 in Kobe, 3 in Melkadida, 4 in Haleweyn, 3 in Boramino (2 under construction), 10 in Bokolmayo and 1 in Transit centre). A total of over 54,047 direct beneficiaries and over 160,000 indirect beneficiaries from the refugee community access one or more of the services provided by Save the Children in all the 23 Centers across the five Refugee Camps and the Transit center.
There is a need across all of the camps to improve the education facilities and child friendly spaces. The majority of activities for young children are still housed in temporary structures – tents or frames covered with plastic sheeting. Tents of this kind are really only fit for purpose for a maximum of 6 months but some of the tents are still being used after a year. The harsh winds blowing sands and heavy rains during the rainy seasons in Dollo Ado have caused huge damage to these tents. Save the Children is trying to upgrade facilities to semi-permanent (solid foundations with temporary walls made from corrugated metal sheeting that are much safer and avoid winds and dust) or permanent structures (such as the new Child and Community Friendly Centers) wherever possible but urgently needs further funds to support these improvements.
One of the questions our supporters ask regularly is “What’s it really like over there?” We captured a day in the life of Save the Children Child Protection Advisor, Amy Richmond, while we worked together in the Horn of Africa on the food crisis. Here is her story from a day in the refugee camps in Dollo Ado, Ethiopia.
I wake up every morning with the sun. We ration electricity, so we all make the most of daylight. Breakfast is usually a cup of instant black coffee and a granola bar. I won’t have anything else until I return from the camps. We don’t eat in front of the children. I work every day, so they blur together. On days we have internet, I check my email.
The team huddles at 7:30 a.m. and we set priorities and tasks. One of my goals is to help kids who have been lost, abandoned or orphaned.
First stop is reception where dozens, sometime hundreds, of children arrive each day. As soon as they’re registered, they’re rushed into a Save the Children feeding center – many of them eating their first meal in days.I work with our partners to make sure vulnerable children get into a protective environment and to reunite lost children with their families.
Next, I monitor the camps - making sure kids are in our school, Child Friendly Space or early child development program. I’m also on the lookout for hazards and basically “kid proof” areas for children to play.
One day while surveying the camps, I met a girl named Alima. She lost both her parents to violent conflict in Mogadishu. She told me of her loss and her frightening journey to the refugee camp – 6 days and nights hitchhiking and walking through the desert. We help children like Alima with various programs, as needed, including foster care, education and health programs.
Despite her hardship, all Alima wanted to talk about was finishing high school. Her hopes were music to my ears. When children talk about their future, it’s a positive sign that – with the right support - they can overcome tragedy. I walked Alima to her host family, comforted to know they were caring friends of her parents. Then I went to a teen mothers’ group where the girls get needed support and resources. We help them to start a business such as tailoring or dyeing fabrics. The girls are independent and want to avoid the traps of exploitative professions and relationships.
Around 4:00, we head back for debriefing at the Save the Children compound. It’s a cluster of tents, dorms, offices, garages and warehouses of food to distribute to families in need. It’s more like a shipping company with a few places to sleep. I have a 3” mattress, a blow-up camping pillow and a mosquito net.
One good thing about it being so hot is that we actually get warm showers. At night, we have a modest communal dinner - typically rice and lentils. Sometimes we have goat meat. Then it’s computer time. Writing emails, reports, tracking status, recommendations, proposals.
It’s late at night when I miss my family and friends at home. I just missed my niece Hannah’s birthday. I look forward to returning home, having put in place strong programs that my Ethiopian and Somali colleagues will see through.
Chronic poverty and malnutrition, conflict, weak health systems, high food prices, poor vaccination coverage, a lack of access to clean water and a changing climate all culminated in a deadly food crisis in 2011. Despite early warnings, livestock perished and thousands of families were pushed closer and closer to the brink of disaster.
It was to become the worst drought in East Africa in 60 years, affecting over 13 million people and killing tens of thousands. In response, Save the Children launched the largest emergency response in our 90-year history. We were already on the ground when the first warning signs were seen. We rapidly scaled up our life-saving programs, delivering health, nutrition, water, crucial life-saving support, protection and education to children and their families.
Thanks to our donors
We are very grateful to all our donors and supporters for their contribution to our work. Thanks to you we have reached over 3.4 million people to date with life-saving and life-sustaining aid.
You’re helping us feed thousands of families, providing many more with clean water and health care across Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia. You are also giving children a future by helping us to provide them with a quality education – many for the first time in their lives. Families are being supported to find sustainable solutions to drought in their communities. But they are not out of danger yet, and many remain on the brink of crisis.
The Hunger Crisis in the Horn of Africa continues. The general food security situation has stabilized and is improving in most areas of Ethiopia due to the arrival in the markets of crops from the meher (October-February) harvest, the impact of the overall good deyr/hagaya (October-December) rains on water availability and livestock conditions, and the continuing distribution of relief food.
However, worsening water shortages continue to be reported in parts of Ethiopia, with an estimated 690,000 people in need of emergency water assistance. Over the past week, water trucking requirements increased by 37 trucks.
Risk of a poor April-June rainy season remains in Somalia, and people in southern regions continue to be vulnerable to both price and rainfall shocks following the devastating effects of the recent food crisis. As a result, large numbers of people are likely to remain in crisis until the August 2012 harvest, with numbers likely to increase starting in May in Juba, Shabelle and Bay regions, when the benefit of the current harvest will be reduced.
Save the Children has been supporting treatment for children with severe acute malnutrition at the OTP (Outpatient Therapeutic Program), school feeding programs, training of cook volunteers, rehabilitation of health posts, screening of children for malnutrition and training on malnutrition by the nutrition team.
In the refugee camps, activities in child protection include reunification of children with their relatives, raising of awareness through tea-talk meetings and house to house visits were done to create awareness to parents about the rights of children in general and the reporting mechanism on child abuses within the camp. Family Tracing and Reunification (FTR) teams also traveled to refugee camps to discuss how to collaborate with other FTR teams and help return more lost children to their relatives.
Educational activities included general supervision to ensure good attendance, water supply, hygiene and sanitation and child protection was done in the Dolo Ado camps, rehabilitation of water, shade and latrines, training of cooks on child protection and proper food handling management.
To help families feed their children, we distributed fresh food vouchers as well as supported livestock vaccination and deworming.
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