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Jesuit Refugee Service accompanies refugees in Ethiopia

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(Washington, D.C.) August 28, 2014 -- The UN refugee agency reported this month that Ethiopia is now the largest host country of refugees in Africa, surpassing Kenya. At the end of July, Ethiopia was home to more than 629,000 refugees, while neighboring Kenya hosts more than 575,000.

The conflict in South Sudan is driving the increase in refugee numbers in Ethiopia, and has sent 188,000 refugees into Ethiopia since the beginning of 2014. There are now 247,000 South Sudanese refugees in the country, making them the largest refugee population.

There are 245,000 Somalis and 99,000 Eritreans seeking safety in Ethiopia. Over the last seven months, nearly 15,000 Eritreans and more than 3,000 Somalis also arrived in Ethiopia.

In the southeast Dollo Ado region, Jesuit Refugee Service serves refugees from Somalia at Melkadida and Kobe refugee camps. The projects in the camps near Dollo Ado are focused on youth, education, livelihoods and psychosocial counseling.

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"The livelihoods we give in collaboration with adult education, what we call the functional literacy program. We provide that training in an integrated manner. (The training is) mainly focused on certain skills that we think (are) marketable in this area, like tailoring, masonry work and plumbing. We (also) try to strengthen some skills that already exist in the community. They (have the knowledge) but we try to strengthen them," said Mulugeta W/Eyesus of JRS Ethiopia.

An unusual feature of the Mai Aini camp population is the youthfulness of the residents. Of particular concern are the approximately 1,250 separated or unaccompanied minors presently living in the camp. Troubling is the fact that an additional 500 minors disappeared from the camp between October 2011 and April 2013, many leaving because of frustration at the lack of prospects for a better future, and the unyielding boredom that descends upon refugee camp residents.

Many of these young people move on to Sudan and Libya with the intention of getting to Europe, and end up attempting the unsafe passage across the Mediterranean that has resulted in so many deaths. Others are trafficked into the Sinai where they are sold to criminal gangs and exposed to torture and extortion. It is believed that some children are encouraged by local family members to leave in order to join family abroad.

Supported by a grant from the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, JRS is working with the UN Refugee Agency and local authorities to fight such departures by improving conditions for children in the camp, and working toward long-term solutions.

"The focus is psychosocial support and we have three programs: counseling, music and theatre, and sports and recreational activities. The youth need some recreational activities. Unless we engage them in sport and recreational activities they will be involved in risky behavior," said Mai Aini project director Fanuel Abebe.

Secondary movement poses a challenge as it is not easy to encourage these children to stay in the camps when they see no hope of a better tomorrow. That is one reason JRS places such an emphasis on education and recreational activities in the form of theater arts, music appreciation and sports leagues.

Camp life can be brutally dull, and combined with promise of better prospects elsewhere it is easy to see why a youngster may seek to leave. It is important for both their physical and mental well being that children -- and adults -- be given the opportunity to pass their time in a refugee camp learning and socializing in a healthy way with others.

The basic routine of school demonstrates to students that people do have a faith in their value and hope for their future contribution to society. It allows children to focus on something other than the destruction of war or the dull routine of a refugee camp.

"Learning is a way to nourish, in a situation of utter despair, the hope in people, the hope in children. It is so important to get (displaced and refugee) children into school, to establish a routine of life. It is important to keep learning, it is a form of trauma healing in the midst of a conflict," says Fr. Peter Balleis, S.J., the International Director of JRS.

While many refugees long to return to their homelands, others have no choice but to seek resettlement in a new country. In either case, education will help them -- to either help rebuild their countries after a period of upheaval, or to adapt to a new land and a new home.

Learn more about Jesuit Refugee Service in the Horn of Africa by clicking here.
Support the work of JRS by clicking here and making a secure donation.