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Erin Patrick

Erin Patrick

Posted: November 10, 2010 12:00 PM

This summer I traveled to the Dadaab region in Kenya, where three refugee camps -- among the largest in the world -- host nearly 300,000 refugees. The camps sit just 60 miles from the Somali border, in a region that has suffered extreme drought over the last few years. As the conflict in Somalia worsens, the number of Somalis seeking refuge in Kenya has steadily grown. Today, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates 4,500 Somalis arrive in the camps each month.

In the camp, I met refugee women who talked with me about their struggle to find enough firewood to cook for their families. Though the narrative that follows is a composite of several individual stories, it presents an accurate picture of a "typical" Somali refugee woman living in Dadaab.

After my husband was killed I knew we had to leave. Somalia had become too dangerous for my three children and me, so we escaped across the border into Kenya and made our way to Dadaab. Ifo, the refugee camp where we now live, is crowded, and more families like mine are arriving every day. I don't know if we'll ever be able to go home.

I want to give my children a good life. I want to make sure they have enough to eat, and materials for school, but there is no way for me to make money in the camp. I want to start my own business someday, but right now I have to make do with the food and supplies the aid agencies give me.

UNHCR sometimes give us firewood, but it is never enough. They give it out every two months, but it only lasts for about five days. So at least once a week, I have to go out into the bush to collect firewood. I need the wood to cook the food rations I receive from the UN. It's strange to me that aid agencies give us food -- things like dried beans, grains and flour -- but nothing to cook it with, especially now that there are no trees or firewood left nearby. Going so far into the bush is dangerous. When I leave in the morning to collect wood, I never know if I'll come home safely.

But I have no choice. My children need to eat, and they get sick if they eat the food raw.

I never go out alone to collect firewood because of the risks. Yesterday, we had a friend in our group who was very pregnant. We were far from home when her pains started, so she had to give birth in the bush. It was nighttime before we were able to carry her and the baby back to camp. Luckily she and her baby were okay -- but we were very angry that her husband forced her to go for wood when she was so pregnant. He could have gone! Men don't care what we have to go through; they just want their food.

We have to walk for hours before we find any wood. The sun is so hot and we get really tired and thirsty. The return journey takes even longer because the wood is very heavy and we have to stop often to rest. When we're out in the bush there are so many things we have to be careful of. But what else can I do when my children are crying from hunger?

I know women who have been raped while collecting wood -- but they don't report it because they don't want to become outcasts. We know nothing will be done about it anyway -- and sometimes things just get worse if you tell people. I know women whose husbands left them after learning they'd been raped. Sometimes the attackers seek revenge if they know you've reported them, and they almost never go to jail anyway, so what's the point?

I try to find ways to avoid having to collect firewood. Sometimes I might take a branch from my fence to burn. But if I have a weak fence, I could get attacked at night. We've had problems in the camp with gangs coming in to rape women and steal our things.

Sometimes men with donkey carts full of wood come into the camp, and I'll trade some of my food rations for their wood. At least then my children will eat. My married friends say they can't tell their husbands when they trade food for wood or the men will beat them.

I think there are ways to help us with these problems. I really like the new stove the aid agencies gave me -- it saves a lot of wood. But many of my neighbors don't have these stoves so they still build open fires that use a lot of wood. It would be great if everyone could get a stove. Also, I was a farmer in Somalia, and I could help replant trees around the camp so we'd have more wood in the future.

I wish I could farm the small amount of land around my house so I could sell vegetables and not have to trade food for wood. Being able to earn even a little money could help.

I know one reason UNHCR gives us so little wood is because it's hard to find, and expensive. I wonder if there is something else we could cook with? There are so many people here who need jobs. Maybe we could make fuel, like briquettes.

I hope now that the humanitarian community is paying more attention to our problems with cooking fuel so we'll be able to get some better solutions.