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South Sudan refugees: “Here is the proof that it works”

Gambella 015
Children at the Kule 2 camp in Ethiopia, which receives refugees fleeing from the conflict in South Sudan.

Lauren Kelly-Jones, is a legal analyst in a New York investment bank, and is a graduate of the University of Chicago. Earlier this year, she visited the Kule 2 camp in Ethiopia with her father, John Kelly-Jones, a partner in an asset management business that supports Save’s the Children’s work, along with other charitable causes. Here, she writes about her experience.

We are covered in dust.

The boy in front of me is maybe four years old. He sticks out a hand, hip jutted to one side, head fuzzy and bronzed. A newborn sleeps in his other arm. “Ma’ah lay”, he says, shaking my hand. Hi.

We are at the Kule 2 refugee camp in Gambella, the low-lying region in Ethiopia that runs along the Sudanese border, about five miles from the closest entry point for those fleeing the conflict in South Sudan.

The skies are hot and will be until the rain season begins. The boy and I are standing outside a tin-grey classroom in Save the Children’s child-friendly space, red dust on our shins.

My dad is inside, reading names on the blackboard, introducing himself. For him, this is a trip taken on behalf of his company to a country he is familiar with.

For me, it is a tag-along. I have never been to Africa before, let alone to a region this remote. I have come over from New York, curious about how relief work actually works.

The boy steps back and looks up at me. Despite his narrowed limbs and rounded belly, he is smiling.

Complex challenges

The drive out to the camp this morning was on a dirt track, through open land and trees that twisted skyward.

The camp is one of a number supported by ARRA (the Ethiopian Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs), a coalition of NGOs that provides networks of spaces and supplies – medical care, education, food, water, sanitation and shelter – to the thousands of Sudanese refugees that have entered Gambella, and joined the population of displaced persons that have crossed Ethiopia’s permeable border.

In pauses between the protests of the engine, Rick, Save the Children’s Head of Mission in Gambella, gave us context, explaining the conflict and the ways that Save the Children educates the teachers, and outlining the challenges.

Most of his role focuses on logistics: overseeing the education programmes, the teacher training, the food supplies, the budget, the physical structures in the camps, and the relationships that Save the Children has with ARRA, the UNHCR and the other agencies, which impact how needs are met at different times.

It is the scale, he says, that makes everything so complicated. As we drove towards Kule 2 and the camp emerged from the horizon, I began to see what he was talking about.

“Here is the proof that it works”

There was no way to be prepared for the enormity. For miles, dark earth and thatched huts stretched out further than we could see.

Coming to terms with the size of the challenge was one thing, but I was even more unprepared for the joy that I saw as we walked with Save the Children representatives into the child-friendly space.

These children, whose lives had been so violently uprooted, were grinning so broadly I thought they were going to fall over. Little hands outstretched, faces happy and shy, older siblings reaching for high-fives, lifting up babies to be greeted.

In the midst of their singing and welcomes, Rick gestured to us as if to say: look, in the camps, they are safe. Here is where we train refugees to become teachers, provide education, create structure. Here is the proof that it works.

It is at the border, he told us later, that you see the trauma.

More that we need to give

It is early afternoon by the time we see the classrooms. They are tall, sturdy, surprisingly cool. In some there are entire crowds of children sitting and shouting new words; in others, only shadows of their presence: scrawled names of international football players on a board from a spelling lesson.

Soon, I will go home to New York and my dad will go back to London. We will email each other articles and photographs and speak on the phone, and try to process the enormity of the gratitude and the awe that we feel towards Save the Children, and the people who run it.

We will try to articulate the mingling of responsibility and guilt, and the knowledge that there is more that we can give (and more that we need to). But this is days away. For now, it is just us and the kids, the classrooms and the dust.


The day has been long. Dad comes outside, shakes hands (“Ma’ah lay!”) with the boy and his baby brother, and we walk back through the playground to shrieks and laughter. As we climb into the jeep and begin to drive away, small fingers press up against the open windows.

I didn’t know how many more outstretched hands I could hold on to, but I wanted to reach them all.

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