Saturday, June 20, 2015

Beyond Borders: A Visit to a Somali Refugee Camp in East Ethiopia

Me at Sheder Camp, Ethiopia.

June 20 is World Refugee Day, dedicated to raising awareness of the situation of refugees throughout the world.

With news of hundreds of migrants risking death each year in the Mediterranean Sea and the Rohingya crisis in our Southeast Asian waters, the wars in Iraq, Syria, South Sudan and other African countries, the  refugee question now, more than ever, needs to be highlighted and addressed not only by world leaders and humanitarians but everyone.
The number of displaced people worldwide has breached the 50 million mark, according to the UN Refugee Agency report in June 2014. That’s one in 133 people and 0.75 percent of the world population. That’s about half the Philippine population, being forced to leave their homes.
More than 15 million of those displaced are refugees, persons forced out of their country of origin and who are unwilling or unable to return there or to avail themselves of its protection because of a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion; or a threat to life or security as a result of armed conflict and other forms of widespread violence which seriously disturb the public order. (UNHCR, 2007) With wars and unrest raging in more parts in the world, these numbers are projected to increase more and more each year.

The best embodiment of the refugee crisis is perhaps the “refugee camp”, rows and rows of sad-looking UNCHR tents in dusty borders. These camps in no man’s lands best express the biggest refugee affliction  – being rendered homeless. Country-less. Future-less.

Refugee camps are halfway houses, meant to shelter refugees temporarily while their countries are still at strife, but in reality, some, if not most, of them have become new permanent settlements

This is the dilemma of housing refugees. Permanent housing solution is still discouraged, even though the camps are more than twenty years old, because the priority is still to return these refugees safely to their homeland or resettle them in a third country, both takes a political solution.

Most old-timer refugee camps have since been populated by permanent structures, of course, unacknowledged (hence, called transitional shelters) but where elsewhere, a house is a family’s symbol of success, dignity, at a refugee camp, having a house (as opposed to a tent) may give a family a semblance of security and stability, that does not strip away the fact that they are still refugees. Homeless. Country-less. Future-less.

I had a chance to see first-hand what this means.* No words can express how I felt.  But there are pictures.

*I am currently co-investigating with a colleague in Dire Dawa University (at its Institute of Technology where I am volunteering under VSO or Voluntary Service Overseas as a Guest Professor) an architectural research project entitled “Developing Shelter Prototypes for Somali Refugees in Ethiopia), where we aim to design and develop a “transitional shelter” prototype for the Somali refugees in Sheder Camp (two hours off the city Jijiga, the capital of the Ethiopian Somali Region, which borders Somalia) that is architecturally sound, structurally stable, and culturally appropriate.  Jijiga is about 3 hours away by bus from Dire Dawa. This was our first official field visit to Sheder Camp.

We are walking behind female Somali refugees towards the camp proper of Sheder.

Somali refugees have been present in Ethiopia since the late-1980s, with major influxes occurring in 1991, 1994, 2009 and 2010. (UNHCR) Four regions of Ethiopia host Somali refugees in camps and urban areas: Jijiga, Dollo Ado, Addis Ababa and Gode. UNHCR lists the number of registered Somali refugees in Sheder Camp at 12,059 (as of January 2015).
Sheder was mostly unpopulated before its conversion into a refugee camp in 2008. It accommodates refugees mostly from the Somali capital of  Mogadishu.
Not your typical UNHCR tent. This is the buul, the traditional shelter of the pastoral Somali population and other similar cultures. This structure can be disassembled and packed as the families move from one place to another. Buuls are traditionally built by women. In Somali refugee camps, UNHCR hands out to refugees materials for a buul (wattle, wooden poles and tarpaulin) as their shelter starter kit. These, particularly the plastic sheets, are then replenished every few months.
The bus-type tent is the Somalis’ bigger semi-permanent brother of the buul. Packed and reassembled elsewhere, with camels as its wheels, it is the Somali’s answer to the RV (a foldable RV, that is).
While this family is happy with their new house, a UNHCR-funded transitional shelter project that began in 2014, given out to selected vulnerable families (i.e. households headed by women), they still await the day when they can leave Sheder. They especially hope for resettlement in the States.
Like most kids elsewhere, these Sheder boys gamely asked for their photos taken. Sheder citizens for almost 7 years, these kids will only know of Sheder (refugees have limited mobility in their host country) unless they are repatriated back to Somalia or resettled elsewhere. I met one 18-year old refugee who has graduated high school in the camp but has no other prospects for a further education nor a career, while in a refugee camp. (The Ethiopian government sponsors a few refugees to a university education but just could not accommodate everyone.) She makes her free time useful by giving younger siblings pre-school lessons.
While walking through one of the camp’s main street (commercial area where refugees can set up shop), this debonair, with his shock of red hair and red eyeglasses, also volunteered to be photographed. But the man on the wheelchair in the background reminds that they are a people, not unscathed, forced to flee their homes by war.
On our way out of the camp, I asked for a picture with a bus-type shelter we passed by, but this guy wanted in, too.
Established in 2008, Sheder Camp is no longer receiving new refugees. Refugees we have spoken to in Sheder say they have no plans in going back to Somalia while the political and security situation in Somalia is still unstable. It still is. Somalis are still fleeing from their homes by the hundreds. The Dollo Ado camp in southeastern Ethiopia and Kenya’s controversial 25-year-old Dadaab camp still receives more and more refugees daily. Described by some, and the refugees themselves as an open-air prison, the refugee camp as solution to humanitarian crises needs serious rethinking and reimagining.
I came to the Sheder Refugee Camp teeming with ideas on how to create better shelter solutions for refugees. I walked away thinking a better shelter sure helps, but that is no solution. I cannot help ease the refugee crises. No, not really. Rebuilding Somalia back into a peaceful society is the ultimate solution. But only the Somalis themselves can do that. 

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