“It’s What Makes You Get Up at 5 AM”: Responding In East Africa

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As the first major drought and famine of the 21st century threatens 11.6 million people in the Horn of Africa, Week of Compassion has responded, utilizing our relationships with trusted partners Church World Service and the ACT Alliance.

As you have likely noticed in scant media coverage of the region, the drought situation in the Horn has reached crisis levels. According to USAID, some 2.85 million people currently require humanitarian assistance in Somalia.

Unprecedented numbers of Somalis are crossing borders into neighboring countries. In June alone, more than 55,000 people fled across the borders into Ethiopia and Kenya--three times the number of the preceding months. Thousands of people are taking huge risks every day to walk hundreds of miles, hoping to reach the safety of refugee camps and feeding centers. They are being forced to make appalling choices, including leaving weak and disabled loved ones on the road to certain death. Famine is expected to be declared throughout the entire southern Somalia region within days.
CWS and ACT Alliance implementing partners Norwegian Church Aid (NCA) and Lutheran World Federation (LWF) are taking the lead in our shared response in the region. NCA’s work is featured in the video above. The following dispatch from ACT communicator John Davison highlights LWF’s emergency and post-emergency programs at three of the border camps at Dadaab, which currently house some 358,000 refugees, with more arriving daily. Your generosity makes this response possible. 

Sagul Mohammed Omar, 24, has just arrived with her five children in the Dadaab refugee camp in northeastern Kenya. Tens of thousands of refugees have fled drought-stricken Somalia in recent weeks, swelling what was already the world's largest refugee settlement. Photo: ACT/Paul Jeffrey

The day begins early for Soraya Musau at Dagahaley refugee camp.

She is out of her tent by 5 AM, waking her staff for another demanding day. By this time newly arrived refugees from Somalia have already begun to gather outside the gates of the compound, seeking food, water, basic necessities – and hope.

The camp is one of three in the Dadaab complex in eastern Kenya. Dagahaley is now receiving the most new refugees – on some days more than the other two camps combined. The highest figure at Dagahaley alone was 1536 in one day, while the total for the three camps has reached more than 60,000 since the refugee emergency was declared on June 6.

Welcoming new arrivals
The crowds are mostly patient and quiet as they wait to enter the reception centre. Some carry bundles of belongings. Many have nothing but their children. All are hungry and exhausted after a journey from Somalia that can take more than three weeks on foot.

For Soraya and her 11 staff, the task is a daunting one.

In the next few hours, all these people have to be guided through the newly-constructed reception centre. Their names will be recorded by government officials. Everyone will be given a colored and numbered wristband, entitling them to food for 21 days and a selection of other goods, such as jerry cans for water, cooking pots, sleeping mats and other essentials to ensure their immediate survival.

Their children also will be inoculated and receive milk, shoes and clothing donated by the local Muslim community, complementing the aid donated by the international community.

Most vulnerable
The first task of the team, however, is to quickly identify the most vulnerable people in the crowd:  unaccompanied children, those with an old person, or someone with a disability. They are brought to the front to begin the process first.

The remaining crowd is then divided by family size, with the largest going first. Men on their own go through last, many impatient to be reunited with their wives and families who traveled before them from Somalia.

It is a long, tiring, dusty process for all involved. And it is a process that is replicated by staff at the other two camps of Ifo and Hagadera.

Tempers do occasionally fray, but most of the refugees seem to lack the energy for any form of confrontation. Soraya has only one security person in her team to help with crowd control, although there is a big security presence in the reception centre itself.

Untiring engagement
After eight weeks of this punishing routine, where the day can go on until 11 PM, all the effort is taking its toll.

“Both myself and the staff are really worn out,” says Soraya, the day before reluctantly leaving for a well-earned week’s break at home. “But I really don’t want to leave my centre.”

One incident in particular has made a great impact on her. On June 30 riots broke out among the new arrivals outside Dagahaley. Two people were shot dead by police and a further 18 injured. The staff was evacuated and the reception centre remained closed for two days. But these inevitable procedures had tragic consequences.

“A family had travelled for 22 days and arrived at 4 AM. But one of their children died in the night: a one-and-a-half-year-old girl. When I woke up and found that, it was heartbreaking,” says Soraya.

But she adds that they have to carry on and remain functional, otherwise they are of no use to the refugees.

“A case like that really shakes you. But on that day 1318 people came, so you didn’t have the time to respond emotionally,” says Soraya. “At the end of the day you do recall and recount what you have seen. It’s what makes you get up at 5 AM.”

In the midst of tragedy, we give thanks not only for the ecumenical relationships that make such responses possible, but also for your support and partnership. These efforts to bring relief and offer long-term solutions to those suffering are a testament to your hope and generosity. If you wish to reach out in Courageous Compassion, please consider contributing here.

For more reports from East Africa, please follow this link.

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