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Ethiopia: Life as a refugee

During the six days I spent on the Joint Assessment Mission (JAM), I met dozens of refugees living in the three camps in the Assosa zone of western Ethiopia.

We chatted with members of the Refugee Central Committee – elected representatives from each part of the refugee camp whose role is to raise issues or concerns on behalf of the refugees to those who manage the camps.

Similarly, we met members of the Women’s and Peace Associations. And we spoke to the organisations and partners who are providing services like hospitals, food and schools in the camps.

The challenges

Young men and women who spoke excellent English helped translate for us, but also told me about having to drop out of university in Sudan as they fled the conflict in their home areas. They explained that they now have nothing to do in the camp and no way to continue their education or earn a living.

Some families I met had grown overnight as they took on responsibility for children who’d been separated from their own families in the rush to leave Sudan.

Issa and his wife Amina now have a seven-year-old daughter, Hayat, who became separated from her parents when war broke out.

Issa tells me they didn’t know where Hayat’s mother was and they had to run: “We wish to get her mother but it’s very difficult. We are from different families but the same tribe.”

Issa and Amina also have a three-year-old daughter, Manil, and Amina is eight months pregnant with their second child.

Issa and his family in Tongo refugee camp


The family now live in Tongo refugee camp. Issa tells me he used to be a businessman, “I had a shop with many materials, but when the war came it was looted.”

He’s obviously frustrated at not being able to fully provide for his family. He tells me, “The children are using clothes that we brought from Sudan.”

The clothes are clearly worn. The only new item Issa has is a jacket. It’s a much-needed item in Tongo camp, which gets very cold at night –especially for the Sudanese refugees who are used to living in a much hotter climate – yet a luxury for many.

Many burdens

In Sherkole camp, I spoke to 23-year-old Samira who has two young children of her own and is also now a foster mother to a relative’s daughter.

Twelve-year-old Hele’s parents died and she travelled alone to Ethiopia where she was then reunited with Samira.

Samira welcomed us into her home in the camp. She told us of the extra burden of having an additional child in the family and how she needs to sell some of the food ration they receive to buy things the children need, including clothes.

Samira also tells us that she is unwell. She’s living with HIV, and although she’s receiving treatment she’s worried that if she passes away there will be no one to look after the children. I’m silenced by her frankness.

I’m also in awe of this young woman. Despite all these challenges, I’m amazed by the homeliness that Samira has created for herself and the children in the small house they live in.

There are three beds on one side of the room where they all sleep and the other side is used for cooking. Samira has embroidered beautiful, colourful mats from wool to decorate the walls. It’s clear that Samira takes great pride in looking after the larger family she now has responsibility for.

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*Some names have been changed to protect identities.

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