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Story Publication logo November 9, 2011

For Somali Refugees in Ethiopia, a “New Normal” that is Anything But


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Famine and war have pushed tens of thousands of Somali refugees to camps along the Ethiopian border...

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A family trekking across the border from Somalia into Ethiopia. Adar Adan walked seven days to get here, with her children. Image by Nikki See. Ethiopia, 2011.

The Hilaweyn refugee camp was set up just a few weeks ago and it already looks like any other dusty small town anywhere in rural Africa. Life goes on for this new community along a busy main street that has evolved across from a water point set up by the U.N. Small shops display pots and pans and household goods, tailors on foot-cranked machines sew colorful fabric, and a small gasoline generator recharges cell phones which, unlike grid electricity, are abundant here.

However, little is normal about this new normal for the 135,000 Somali refugees who've reached this and three other camps a few miles inside Ethiopia from the Somali border (Another half a million made the trek to camps in northern Kenya before fighting closed that escape route.) Even though it is the refugees' first taste of peace, adequate food and medical care, the future is clouded by uncertainty and will long be scarred by their ordeal of terror and scarcity.

For example, in the camp hospital set up by the aid group Doctors Without Borders, repairing the complications of malnutrition takes much more intervention than providing a tube of plumpy nut, the popular peanut-rich food supplement. Dozens of young children cling to life, many fitted with nasal feeding tubes into which carefully measured formula feedings are delivered to their withered bodies.

"We can't throw too much at them at one time," says Dr. Benjamin Levy, a Michigan native who has worked here for eight weeks. Severely malnourished children are especially vulnerable to infections, including diarrhea 10 to 20 times a day and deadly pneumonia.

"Oftentimes in America our bodies are able to isolate infection—place it into one lung in a specific region," Levy said. "These children are getting fluid building up in both lungs and it causes severe respiratory distress."

The toll all this takes on the children's learning capacity is yet unknown. Education is further down the hierarchy of needs here, though the U.N is planning to open schools in the camps. It would be the first taste of any formal education in two generations in many refugee families.

"We don't read or write—we need to be educated," said Hassan Kulow, who survived a 12-day donkey cart ride to get to Ethiopia with his wife and five small children. "We need (education) facilities so we can catch up with the rest of the world." Like his neighbors, he hopes to be resettled in a third country. Somalia—stricken by drought and conflict—is not an option, most refugees insist.

Resettlement—if and when it happens—is not likely to be swift in a time of severe budget cutting and recession in most countries that have historically taken in Somali refugees: Canada has received about 200,000 since the mid eighties, about twice the number as Britain, the second largest recipient country. Some 85,000 Somalis live in the United States.

The queue to join them is much larger than in previous exoduses. In addition to the arrivals into Ethiopia, about half a million refugees fled into camps in northern Kenya in recent months before Kenyan troops moved in to engage the Al Qaeda-affiliated Shabab militants in the border region—effectively stopping any civilian migration. Aid workers are bracing themselves for another spike if the conflict abates and security improves. An estimated 1.5 million Somalis are considered internally displaced, refugees in their own country and far more difficult to service.

For now, like so many refugees, aid providers must deal with more immediate, urgent priorities. The U.N's World Food Program and the private aid groups it partners with say the shelves are adequately stocked through early next year. But they are already actively seeking funds to sustain the camps beyond then—a task complicated by economics, politics and donor fatigue. Famine is just never going to attract the news cameras like an earthquake or flood, says the WFP's Jaako Valli. It doesn't help that the Somali refugee crisis, though acute now, has been around for more than two decades—and that the only news getting much recent attention from Somalia has been about piracy and terrorism.


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