(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.
Young refugees from Eritrea at Mai Aini refugee camp in Ethiopia. An unusual feature of the Mai Aini camp population is the youthfulness of the residents. (Christian Fuchs — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)
The Jesuit Refugee Service library at Mai Aini refugee camp. (Christian Fuchs — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)
The Jesuit Refugee Service library at Mai Aini refugee camp enables refugees to keep their dreams of a better future alive by providing access to computers, books and a quiet place to study. (Christian Fuchs — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)
Jesuit Refugee Service/USA National Director Armando Borja (right) chats with JRS Ethiopia Country Director Fr. Endeshaw Debrework S.J. at Mai Aini refugee camp. (Christian Fuchs — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)
The traditional Ethiopian method of brewing and drinking coffee includes a snack of fresh popcorn. (Christian Fuchs — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)
Young refugees at Mai Aini proudly — they insisted on having a photo — display the certificates they earned for successfully completing an arts training class. (Christian Fuchs — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)
Melkadida Refugee Camp, about 70 kilometers from Dollo Ado, Ethiopia. More than 44,000 refugees from Somalia were registered by UNHCR in Melkadida as of July 31, 2014. (Christian Fuchs — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)
JRS provides counseling, adult literacy and a variety of youth programs for refugees from Somalia at Melkadida and Kobe camps in the Dollo Ado region. (Christian Fuchs — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)
Young women from Somalia at the Melkadida refugee camp in the Dollo Ado region of Ethiopia. (Christian Fuchs — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)
The basic routine of school demonstrates to students, such as these Somali refugees in Melkadida camp, that people do have a faith in their value and hope for their future contribution to society. (Christian Fuchs — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)
“One of the most challenging things that the refugees face is that need of going back home,” said Tium Debesai, the Psychosocial Coordinator for JRS in Melkadida. “Hope (to return home) is not yet visible in the near future and this is the most challenging situation they say they are facing." (Christian Fuchs — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)
JRS projects in Melkadida and nearby Kobe refugee camp — home to more than 38,000 refugees — are focused on youth, education, livelihoods and psychosocial counseling. (Christian Fuchs — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)
"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.
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