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Facing up to what life is like in Dadaab refugee camps

I’ve been waiting to write this blog following a trip to the Dadaab refugee camps in north east Kenya – trying to let the experience ‘sink in’, so I could ariticulate my thoughts on it more clearly.  I’ve given up waiting – nothing prepared me for what I saw and heard in Dadaab.  So, I’m just going to share some aspects of the trip that will stay with me forever.

Some facts about Dadaab:
– there are three camps in Dadaab hosting refugees mostly from Somalia, but also Sudan and Uganda.
– the camps were set up in 1992 to host only 90,000, and now host close to 300,000 – a further 6,000 people arrive each month
– Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees recently descrived Dadaab as ‘the worst camp situation in the world’

The environment was about as harsh as I could imagine – dry, hot, windy – inhospitable to say the least, but especially if you are living 8 people to a tiny shelter, covered with ripped tarpaulin and any other available materials you can find. I dread to think how people will cope when the anticipated El Nino rains come in October. Disease must spread so quickly in these conditions.

I met families whose stories were utterly devastating – fleeing Somalia after fathers were killed, daughters were raped (and subsequent illegitimate children were born) and all means of supporting themselves were destroyed by the unrelenting drought. One mother cried as she told me her story and her hopes for the future – I felt completely unworthy as my life has never been affected by such suffering. My role as emergencies communications officer means I read sad stories all the time from around the world – but I was completely humbled by the honesty, openness and humanity of this woman as I sat with her in her very meagre shelter.

I met children who had travelled on their own at great risk to a foreign country in search of peace and assistance – and was amazed by the generosity of mothers willing to foster these children, care for them as their own, depsite living in dire poverty with nothing to offer them materially. One child told me that what she liked about living in Dadaab was the ‘peace’ – she feared above everything the sound of fighting and every time she heard gunfire in Somalia she involuntarily vomited.

I was impressed by our staff, some of whom are refugees themselves and have grown up most of their childhood in the camps.  Their commitment to working for Save the Children and our work was incredible – they shared with me their hopes for returning to Somalia eventually to continue their child protection work back in their home country. I wonder how they deal with the frustrations of their ‘wait’ in the camps – day to day, year to year.

Above everything, I was convinced by the imperative nature and value of our child protection work in the Dadaab camps. In this setting, child protection work is absolutely life-saving. But our work desperately needs more funding as the numbers we are reaching has doubled in the past two years. The teams in the camps work tirelessly to improve the lives and fate of children in the camps, living in tough conditions with little comfort.

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