World Refugee Day

June 20th, 2012

As the world marks World Refugee Day in honour of the 43 million refugees living across our planet, I felt compelled to write about the refugees I met last year in Mandera County, North East Kenya.

This is the photo I have as my Twitter background (@gemmahume1) of some of the refugees I met. What will probably strike you, as it did me, is that despite the unimaginable hardship they face…they are still smiling. I will never forget the smiles on those women’s faces.

Each has suffered more than I could imagine. And yet, they continue to persevere. I wanted to write this in recognition of their resilience and spirit.

Sadly, a person who becomes a refugee is likely to remain one for many years and I wonder now if they are still where I saw them  a year ago.

The emergency relief camps I went to in north eastern Kenya were full of pastoralists whose livelihoods had been destroyed as a result of recurring droughts.

The droughts decimated their livestock and many of them were forced to forsake their traditional culture.

One refugee camp I visited was in El Wak, a town in Mandera county. Here, I met Kausa, a 50-year-old grandmother. After the rains failed and drought killed her livestock, she was forced to leave her home and walk more than 50 miles to El Wak to get help. By the time she arrived at the camp four days later, two of her grandchildren had died. She said:

“My husband ran away when the animals died. There was no water, no food. First the cows died, then the goats and the camels. I knew we had to leave. Everyone was weak from hunger and thirst.”

She now depends on handouts in El Wak as she’s unable to provide food for her remaining ten children and six grandchildren.

Another grandmother, Fatima (pictured below), aged 56, told me that when she lost her herd of 200 goats she knew that life as a pastoralist as over. She said:

“I know I cannot go back and I will now carry firewood on my back to earn money to feed my family because there is not enough food here to feed everybody.”

I thought about my mum, who was a similar age, carrying firewood on her back for the rest of her days to put food on the table.

The pain and suffering that I saw here made me so deeply sad but also frustrated. There was aid coming into the Mandera region. But this was food aid being brought for people, not the livestock they depended on. Yes, these people were hungry and needed food. But as far as I could see it, this was a short-term survival solution. They cannot live on handouts forever.

Practical Action is working with communities on a variety of projects such as:

    • rehabilitating water structures such as shallow wells
    • improving the market for livestock
    • supporting animal health services working with authorities and organisations on managing drought situations
    • improving access to information services on health, water, vaccinations, seasonal forecasts and technology
    • linking them to other emergency service providers.

Unless decisive action is taken to help these nomadic herders adapt even further to the extremes of climate change, they will no longer be able to sustain their way of life. They will remain in refugee camps for the forseeable future.  There must be a huge programme of investment to enable pastoralists to cope with climate change and ensure they don’t end up, like Kausa and Fatima, as refugees…just a number – one of 43 million.

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