Lessons from the largest refugee camp in the world
Last week I visited the largest refugee camp in the world, Dadaab in northern Kenya, home to almost 450,000 Somali refugees.
I also visited the Yida refugee camp in northern South Sudan which has 60,000 Sudanese inhabitants fleeing from the conflict in South Kordofan, Sudan.
My expectations of an African refugee camp were shaped by the images on our TV screens of skeletal starvation and desperately malnourished kids.
At both Dadaab in 2011 and Yida in 2012 there were scenes of such horror. But now the immediacy of these crises has passed and life has stabilised.
My first reaction to the camps was not their condition, but rather the incredible logistical task which is the provision of refuge. Standing among those queuing for food on a regular Tuesday morning in Dadaab is to witness human orchestration on a grand scale. In a given month 450,000 people are provided with rations twice.
On this particular day it was the turn of family sizes of two and ten people to take their ration. With sacks and plastic containers one person per family worked their way down the line of different products which are carefully chosen to provide 2,100 calories per person per day: the minimum average requirement to sustain a healthy life. The process can take anywhere from twenty minutes to four hours depending on the crowd.
The refugees progressed through the centre with patience and good humour. In Yida the large queues of colourfully dressed women with kids in tow created a scene of genuine beauty. No-one would want to be there. The food provided was basic and minimal. But life was being sustained. This was a refuge.
In Dadaab safety was a serious concern. In recent months the Somali terrorist group Al Shabaab were involved in abducting aid workers, using improvised explosive devices to attack Kenyan soldiers and systematically raping refugees in an appalling exercise of brutal power.
The result has left the UN compound behind large sandbag walls, with aid workers being transported in armoured vehicles and a camp population tired with fear. The camp remains safer than Somalia but for some the question is in the balance.
Even though it was just 15km from a conflict zone Yida was safer but the pressing issue there was disease. Yida is situated in the South Sudan Sudd which for seven months of the year is the largest swamp in the world. Malaria is endemic. Basic water and sanitation gives rise to much digestive disease. Acute watery diarrhoea has been the biggest cause of death.
At both camps we lunched with aid workers and listened to their stories. In Yida I met Brock Kreitzburg from Akron, Ohio, who was working with an American NGO, Samaritan’s Purse. Brock had represented the US in the 2006 winter Olympics and had played professional gridiron as a wide receiver. As an elite athlete, he had necessarily invested wholly in himself. Now he was devoted to investing in the lives of others. For Brock, faith was an important motivator.
In Yida the aid workers came from many places: the US and France, Mongolia and Australia. They lived in tents. Their toilets were pits. Their food was basic. As the refugees became sick so did they.
One woman had had malaria six times in six months.
All the aid workers described an existence where they never felt 100%. But their camaraderie pulsated. Their sense of reward shone bright. In the harshest of circumstances these were the most remarkable of people.
Amidst all that was difficult and much that was sad, these camps contained hope.
In Yida, out of nowhere, had sprung a market. It was run by and for the refugees. The spirit of human enterprise had produced butchers, fruiterers, tailors, mechanics and many general stores. The market buzzed with a radiant life force.
And in Dadaab we visited one of the many schools in the camp. Kids were lined up in their uniforms. Girls giggled shyly. Boys brashly pushed forward to present themselves with a grin. Laughter and excitement were the predominant expression.
Their teacher had grown up in this very camp, completed his schooling, and graduated from a Kenyan teachers college. He was a young man, with skills, whose dream was to return to Somalia to use them. From this refugee camp a vibrant life had emerged – one of many.
A visit to these camps puts pay to any cynicism about the UN and its agencies such as the World Food Programme and the UNHCR. Australia’s aid contributes significantly to their work. It is genuinely humanitarian. It really matters.
Being a member of the global community has provided Australia with great prosperity. The role we are playing in African refugee camps is the least we can do in return.
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