For refugees, a fresh start in Dadaab


by Robert Fox

The first families moved into Ifo II yesterday. Finally.

For the families, this refugee camp near Dadaab in northern Kenya offers security and stability after weeks of hunger, thirst, risk and trauma.

For the Oxfam staff who had planned and installed the water, sanitation and public health systems that form the foundation of the camp, it rewards their labours and brings to an end months of frustrating delay.

Last autumn, Oxfam had installed all the needed water infrastructure to support a refugee population of 40,000. The goal had been to properly house the burgeoning numbers of Somali refugees who had crossed the border to Kenya fleeing the drought and the conflict that grips Somalia.

It was an impressive engineering and logistical feat. Four boreholes were drilled, as deep as 220 metres, to pump water from an underground aquifer to a surface so parched that camels are dying of thirst. This water is then chlorinated, piped and pumped into four huge water towers that each hold 108,000 litres, which in turn provide the pressure needed to supply water stands throughout the camp with potable water.

Complementing the taps, shower and laundry facilities, toilets were also set up, two for every 20 households.

And while Oxfam focused on water and sanitation, other agencies built schools, clinics and other essential services.

But for months, Ifo II lie idle, tied up in a complex web of issues and interests. Until yesterday.

Challenges Ahead

I spoke with some of the families who had just settled in. They told me of the trials they have overcome to arrive at this place of refuge: the drought, the violence, the trek, the hunger, the delays. And they expressed relief and a sense of safety that having overcome so much they could now take a moment to rest, to heal, and to start thinking about what is next for themselves and their families.

For their challenges haven't ended. In many ways they have just started. But at the least their basic needs are being met, their rights protected and their dignity restored.

And when you see the children of these families -- stick thin and dull-haired -- you are reminded and reassured at the resilience of human beings. For they look to catch your eye, to shake your hand, to test the three words of English they know -- how are you? The bolder among them jump to give you a high five.

That they have suffered, have no doubt. Yet having seen their shy smiles and dazzling grins, I find some comfort and hope for their futures.

And for the Oxfam staff working on the front lines of this humanitarian response -- dedicated and talented women and men from Kenya, across África and around the world -- my boundless respect and admiration.

Robert Fox is Executive Director of Oxfam Canada.


Related August 2011 blogs by Robert Fox: