Hope amidst hardship
A version of this article appeared as an op-ed in the Ottawa Citizen on August 25, 2011 and Windsor Star on September 6, 2011.
by Robert Fox
When I see the children - stick thin and dull-haired - I am reassured about the resilience of human beings. They look to catch my eye, to shake my hand, to test the three words of English they know: "How are you?" The bolder among them jump to give me a high five.
These children at the Dadaab refugee camp in northern Kenya have suffered. Yet, having seen their shy smiles and dazzling grins, I find some comfort and hope for their futures.
I spoke to a family who walked 25 days from Somalia to Dadaab and then waited 30 days to get a tent. They had fled after finding a bomb in their home. Now, above all, they felt safe. "Hunger isn't a problem if we are secure."
In southern Ethiopia, at camps near Dolo Ado, the population has tripled to 120,000 in recent months. Most are women and children from Somalia.
I was awed by their determination. As in the camps in Kenya, courageous women shepherded their families for days - in many cases weeks - to get to Dolo Ado, situated in a desolate land of swirling red dust and dry winds that sting your eyes and leave your throat dry.
Many lost family members along the way. Most arrived with only the clothes on their backs. Too many suffered or witnessed violence.
Despite all this, the dominant mood is relief rather than distress.
I share stories of Canadians who are raising funds to support them through this most difficult time of drought and conflict - in particular, the seven young Somali-Canadians who walked from Calgary to Edmonton in support of Oxfam's East Africa Appeal.
I tell them the world is watching - and taking action.
Oxfam has erected a 10,000-litre water tank at the Hiloweyn camp set up by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees near Dolo Ado. Two more tanks are being constructed.
Water stands are set up - clusters of taps that serve as community hubs. Now water is trucked in, but three kilometres of piping is being brought in to carry water from a nearby river instead.
Temporary pit latrines have been dug and will be replaced by sturdier ones in coming days. As always, Oxfam combines water and sanitation efforts with a strong emphasis on hygiene and public health promotion, recognizing the link among them and the high risk of water-borne disease.
Many of the refugees are semi-nomadic people, used to living spread out over a vast area where they can safely defecate in the open air. Now, suddenly crowded into an instant town of tens of thousands, doing so would be deadly. Contagion, carried by contaminated water and flies, would turn crisis into catastrophe.
Knowing the power of play, Oxfam enlists children to help get out the message. I listened to a young boy sing a beautiful song in praise of clean water, clean hands and clean toilets. In a skit, a boy scolded a friend who is found squatting in a field, encouraging him to use the latrines for his own sake and that of the community. The kids giving this performance had been living in the camp only a few days. Yet they were bursting with a conviction I found hugely encouraging.
Ifo II camp near Dadaab, Kenya, opened last week after standing idle for nearly a year, to support a refugee population of 40,000 and take some pressure off the overflowing camps nearby.
Oxfam had installed water infrastructure there nearly a year ago. It is an impressive engineering 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 chlorinated, piped and pumped into four huge water towers that each hold 108,000 litres, providing the pressure to supply water stands in the camp.
While Oxfam focused on water and sanitation, other agencies built schools, clinics and other essential services.
The families I spoke with had just settled in. 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 begun. But now their basic needs are met, their rights protected and their dignity restored.
Robert Fox is the Executive Director of Oxfam Canada.