Volume 12 Number 6
Life in Sherkole Refugee Camp
01 December 1999

Five weeks in a refugee camp in Western Ethiopia shattered Fiona Leggat's stereotypes.
This summer I spent five weeks doing what millions do every day--I lived in a refugee camp. Unlike the 16,000 Sudanese refugees in Sherkole camp in Western Ethiopia, I had not come to seek shelter but as part of the UNHCR Camp Sadako Youth Awareness Programme, which offers young people the chance to learn about the lives of refugees by actually living with them.

Unlike my stereotypical image of a hot, desolate, wind-swept plain covered with tents, Sherkole was disorientatingly beautiful. The camp, set in the green hills of Western Ethiopia, seemed more like a village, with the refugees living in tukuls--round mud huts with thatched roofs. It was the rainy season and often very cold.

After the initial shock of arriving, I was relieved that the refugees do receive food. But then I saw the children's bellies, swollen by malnutrition, and their skinny legs. Their ration of grain, pulses, oil, and salt is adequate for short-term survival, but has little nutritional value and is totally insufficient for a prolonged diet. They receive no fruit or vegetables, meat, eggs or dairy products. Some of the children grow up on little other than basic gruel.

In spite of this, the refugees of Sherkole camp are lucky. For a couple of months every year they can grow a few crops or vegetables outside their huts with seeds given by UNHCR. If they lived in Eastern Ethiopia, they would have only dust to plant in.

It is what they lack that strikes you most: possessions, identity, the things which affirm their dignity. Most refugees only have the clothes they came in, very few have shoes, and many of the children have no clothes at all. There are no funds to distribute clothes. Some people sell part of their ration and save up for months in order to buy an item of clothing for their naked children. It only costs £3 to clothe a refugee child, but when the most you can earn working in the fields of a local farmer is 25p a day, and that money buys barely enough vegetables for one meal, it takes a long time to clothe a family of eight.

The refugees are given a stove, a pot and a pan, and a container to carry water. A few lucky ones 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.

I realized that I usually thought of refugees in terms of immediate short-term aid, with little consideration for the long term. They need shelter, water and food--which the UNHCR does its best to provide. But in camps such as Sherkole, many have already been refugees for years and have no immediate prospect of returning home. In reality they are trying to build a town with adequate educational, community and health facilities to support 16,000 people.

The people of Sherkole camp are not just desperate for food and clothes, but for contact with the outside world. They feel forgotten. Most of their families do not know where they are.

Daniel's experiences are typical. He is 18, and what is called an unaccompanied minor. His father was killed and he became separated from his mother when the fighting took over his town, so 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 of his life as a refugee, and does not know if any of his family are alive. He may never know.

The refugees' response to me being there was overwhelming: I was the first Westerner to have spent more than 24 hours in the camp. The old women cried because they were so happy to meet me, the children followed me, singing and wanting to touch my skin. I would teach them tricks, play ball with them, or traditional games (which I could never get the hang of). Often I just felt helpless, that all I could give were token gestures, a smile, a hug, a game with the children, an ear to their problems. Yet these things can mean everything, because they acknowledge a person as a person, not just as a refugee.

I found myself shutting off the reality of the situation, 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 are not fine, they are never fine, they never have a good day, or sleep through a whole night. I sat and listened to their stories and felt heartbroken. You wish there was something you could say to make the pain go away, to make things better. But you can't. And all they actually want is someone to listen. I thought of how frivolous my life is at home, and of all the possessions I own, and opportunities I have. No one could believe that because my parents come from different parts of the world I have two countries and two passports when they don't even have one.

Feeling a bit silly, I had brought some past copies of For A Change with me, thinking how inappropriate they were to take to a camp. But they were like gold, as for many they were the first contact they had had with the outside world in over a year. Never has a magazine been so well read. As most cannot read English they were translated and read out to large groups. Everyone laughed at 'Ear to the Ground', and sat and discussed the articles.

My biggest fear when I left Britain was whether I would cope, and at times the suffering, disease, flies and attention were almost 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 these people as hungry mouths to feed, totally dependent on aid workers and unable to do anything for themselves. But in fact they get on with it. They build their huts, and work to improve the camp: building the clinic or the school. They find some inner strength to make the most of the hand they have been dealt.

A few of the people in Sherkole camp are educated, and used to live in beautiful homes, with cars, money and good jobs. A degree means very little in a refugee camp, so now they dig their own latrines. Yet they try to live with pride and dignity. They do not beg, or steal one cob of corn from their neighbour's garden, even if they have no food to give to their children that night.

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 come home heartbroken. To leave was actually more distressing than it was to arrive.

The prospects for the refugees of Sherkole camp are bleak. They have little chance of returning home to Sudan in the near future. If they do, they will find destroyed houses and land ravaged by war. Their prospects in the camp are not a great deal better. The war in Sudan is an old conflict, and not often in the news. Its victims are not a fashionable cause. The refugees at Sherkole had heard that more aid money was raised for Kosovo in a few weeks than they had received in years, and they asked me why. What can you say? Yet, compared to millions of their compatriots, they are lucky, because they are safe. They have been granted refuge.

For more information about Sherkole Camp, and how you can help, you can contact Fiona Leggat at 24 Greencoat Place, London SW1P 1RD, or by e-mail at fionaleggat@hotmail.com
Fiona Leggat

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