This summer I spent five weeks doing what millions do every day--I lived in a refugee camp.
Unlike the 16,000 Sudanese seeking refuge in Sherkole camp, I went as a volunteer. The UNHCR Camp Sadako Youth Awareness Programme offers young people a chance to learn about refugees by living with them. Unlike my stereotypical images of hot, desolate wind-swept plains with people living in canvas tents, I was in the green hills of Western Ethiopia in the rainy season. Often it was very cold. The camp itself seemed more like a village, with the refugees living in Tukuls--round mud huts with thatched roofs. Sherkole camp is disorientatingly beautiful.
I had conjured up pictures of bodies lying in the dust, mouths open and hands outstretched for food--another of the many stereotypes I was forced to reconsider. Each refugee family in Sherkole receives a monthly ration, so they are able to cook for themselves. But the ration (consisting of grain, pulses, oil, and salt--no fruit, vegetables, meat, eggs or dairy products) has no nutritional value and is adequate only for short-term survival. The children have bellies swollen through malnutrition and skinny legs. And these are the lucky ones; for a few months of every year they can grow some crops or vegetables in the small area surrounding their hut. Those in Eastern Ethiopia have only dust in which to plant.
The overriding feeling in the camp is one of immense loss--not just of homeland and loved ones, but of their very selves. Everything has been stripped away. Most have only the clothes they came in. Some desperately sell part of their ration, saving up for months to buy an item of clothing for their naked child. It costs only 'A33 to fully clothe a child in Ethiopia, but when the most you can earn is 25p a day working in the fields, and that money buys barely enough vegetables for one meal, it takes a long time to clothe a family of eight. No clothes are distributed, but the refugees are given a stove, a pot, a pan, and a plastic container to carry water. A few have a Bible, or photos of a loved one, that they brought with them. But most walked for days to reach the camp, and came with nothing. In camps such as this, many have already been refugees for years, with no immediate prospect of returning home. In reality, what is needed is a town with adequate educational, community and health facilities for 16,000 people.
Megumi (the other volunteer, from Japan) and I lived on the UNHCR compound right in the middle of the camp. Our room was very basic--a kind of concrete prison cell with a metal door and bars at the window. We had a bed each, two chairs and a small table. There were no shelves, cupboards or drawers, so our stuff was either piled on a chair or fighting for space on the table. We had a bathroom attached to our room which at times smelt so bad we had to try and hold our breath, making washing a quick and determined process. The toilet fluctuated between leaking badly and flooding the bathroom, or refusing to flush. We washed with well water out of a bucket. Our room was a hive of insects: wasps, cockroaches, flies, mosquitoes, and ants. They initially caused us great distress, but we soon found ways to cope. The food was simple but pretty good considering the limitation of ingredients and the difficulties of cooking on an open fire. Unfortunately my stomach boycotted the proceedings and I ended up with amoebic dysentery, and had bad diahorrea for seven weeks. At times I was ill in bed with fever, cramps etc but mostly able to continue work--just tired and weak, with embarrassingly frequent dashes to the nearest long drop. Soon most of the camp were up to date on my movements (so to speak), and it was the cause of much amusement.
Often it was hardest working out where you could be of most use. I held a series of workshops on equal rights for women and conducted research into the use of resources by refugees. In particular I enjoyed my enthusiastic class of 35 trainee primary school teachers (only one woman). I taught for an hour every day on various topics, including games and songs (it was surreal to be singing London's Burning and Three Blind Mice!). They wanted to teach in ways more interesting than simply lessons from the front of the class. It's not easy. There are almost no resources at the school--not one ball or map, and only a splattering of textbooks.
The people of Sherkole camp are desperate--not only for food and clothes, but for contact with the outside world. They feel forgotten. Most do not know where their families are, and wait each day, wondering if their relatives will arrive. The experiences of a friend of mine, Daniel, are typical. He is 18, and what is called an unaccompanied minor. His father was killed. Fighting took over his town and he became separated from his mother. He was forced to flee with some relatives. That was over ten years ago, and he has since lost his relatives. He is alone, has spent more than half his life as a refugee, and may never know whether any of his family are alive.
Many of the refugees had never seen a non-African before and almost none spoke English. Initially, some of the children were scared of me and Megumi and would run away, thinking we were devils or diseased. For the first days people just stared, but after a week everyone knew us and would wave and shake hands. Some of the old ladies cried because they were so happy to meet us. The children became very friendly, running after us, wanting to sing for us and touch our skin. We would play ball with them, or traditional games (which I could never get the hang of) or pull faces. We visited some of the pre-schools where all 200 children came out to welcome us. How do you create bonds with people when you cannot talk with them? It is in the midst of such suffering that the boundaries which usually exist between strangers are swept away--a look, a tiny hand in yours can say so much more than words.
The constant attention was overwhelming at times. Friendship-wise it was exhausting and almost lonely. We spent each day sharing the refugees' problems, but with no one to turn to ourselves. Often I felt helpless. All I could give were token gestures--a smile, a hug or a listening ear. Yet these mean everything because they acknowledge a person as a person, not as a refugee. I sat and listened to their stories and wished there was something I could say to make the pain go away. I thought of how frivolous my life is at home, of all the possessions I own and the opportunities I have. No one could believe that, through having parents of different nationalities, I have two countries and two passports. They don't even have one. Even the staff there owned less than I brought for a month and I thought I had packed light.
Often I found myself shutting off reality, chatting to people as if I had just met them in the street. `Hi, how are you?'--`I'm fine thanks.' But of course they're not fine, they're never fine, they never have a good day, or sleep through a whole night. One friend, Michael, took me to his house to meet his baby. It was six months old and tiny enough to hold in one hand. Michael is 26 and probably has AIDS, but it is too expensive to test refugees. His wife is 20, has typhoid and is probably HIV positive. She has no breast milk and the baby has malaria. Every few days I went to visit them, each time wondering if the baby was still alive. There is treatment that could help, but no one could afford it. Michael asked what more could be done. I gave some money to buy special food. I hear now that the baby has recovered. But you can't help everyone, and that's difficult.
My head often spun in confusion. I was surrounded by laughter, crying, singing, screaming, fear, desperation. The worst was the silence. The refugees are powerless, they have to sit and wait until someone decides their future. My biggest fear before I went was whether I would cope--and at times the suffering, disease, flies, and attention were simply too much. But you do cope, because you have to. The refugees need you to be strong, and having your own personal crisis does not help anyone. At home it is easy to picture them simply as hungry mouths to feed, totally dependent on aid workers, unable to do anything for themselves. But they are not. They get on with it. They build their own huts, and work to improve the camp clinic and school. They find some inner strength to make the most of the hand they have been dealt. A number of them are educated, and used to live in beautiful homes, with a car, money and a good job. A degree means little in a refugee camp, and now they dig their own latrine. Yet they try to live with pride and dignity. They do not beg, or steal even one cob of corn from their neighbour's garden, though they have no food to give to their children.
I had expected to feel distress, shock, anger, frustration, helplessness, disillusionment, and a desire to change things. I did not expect to laugh so much, to make so many friends, and to be so sad to leave. In many ways I have returned heartbroken. To leave was more distressing than to arrive. The refugees' prospects are bleak. They have little chance of being able to return to the Sudan in the near future. If they do, they return to destroyed houses and land ravaged by war. Their prospects on the camp are not much better. The Sudan is an old conflict, and not often in the news. It is the forgotten war, going on for so long that the world has shut its eyes, and in doing so its heart. It is not a fashionable place to distribute aid; new, higher profile conflicts have taken the limelight. The Sherkole refugees have heard that more aid money was raised for Kosovo in a few weeks than they have received in years. They asked me why the aid goes to Kosovo and not to them. What can you say?
Before I left friends would ask, `Why?'. Why choose to go somewhere you know will be disillusioning and distressing? I could not put it into words, but I knew I had to do it. I feel privileged to have been given the opportunity to share in the lives and suffering of these people. An experience like this puts your whole life into perspective. And, as clich'E9d as it sounds, it makes you realise that one person can make a difference. On my return, friends have asked what I actually achieved, what difference I made to the refugees' lives. They have no more food than before. There are no fewer deaths, or less disease. Are my friends right? Did I achieve anything?
The many letters I have received, the tears shed when I left, and the new-born babies called Fiona tell me that I did give them something. I gave them hope, friendship and acknowledgement. They may be statistics to most of the world, but to me they are people--they are my friends. But I also have a terrible sense of responsibility. I am no longer ignorant. I know they are there, I know how great their needs are, and I also know that things can change. There is so much need in the world, so many horrific stories of floods, famines, earthquakes and war that it is simply overwhelming, and you wonder how much you can do to really change things. For me the key is having been able to focus that desire to help. Deciding to commit yourself to helping just one small group of individuals can seem small or introspective but that is where you can really make and see a difference. I know I can transform the lives of this small refugee community, so how can I possibly not try?
Fiona Leggat, New Zealand/UK
If you would like to know how you can help (eg. 'A33 to clothe a child) please contact Fiona at: Sherkole Refugee Fund, c/o 24 Greencoat Place, London SW1P 1RD,UK