Catherine Mahony, one of our Emergency Response Officers, writes:
I often feel that life in refugee camps is misrepresented. I don’t like the images of camps we see on television, in which people always look sad and helpless. I know why we are only shown the horror: it’s undeniably awful that people have had to run from their homes because they’re being bombed, that they’ve had to walk for a month to find safety, that they’re tired and sick and don’t have enough food. But that isn’t the whole picture.
I met Samia Hussein because the beautiful stoves she was selling made me stop in my tracks. We were in the marketplace in Yusuf Batil refugee camp in South Sudan, home to more than 35,000 people who have fled fighting in Blue Nile State in Sudan. Samia was selling portable, energy-efficient stoves that were made from donkey dung, for about 50p each.
When I approached her, she was stirring a big pot of okra stew that she was planning to sell that night, but she smiled and welcomed me into her shelter. She told me that she, her husband and her two sons had fled from their village last September. “We were being bombed,” she said and mimed the Antonov planes that had roared overhead. Since then, the family had travelled on foot, with almost no possessions, before arriving in Batil this June.
I asked Samia how she was finding life in Batil. Given how difficult I knew things were in the camp, I was surprised by her response: “It’s good,” she said, smiling. Her positive outlook must have helped her get through – she and her family had arrived with nothing except a small amount of savings. She had used the money to buy a cooking pot and food and set up her stall in the market.
Later, she had seen someone making a stove and copied the design. The neat little devices she was now selling could retain the heat from burning charcoal more effectively than traditional stoves, meaning people wouldn’t need to use so much fuel. I was struck by how incredibly resourceful she was.
When I’m asked if I find visiting refugee camps like Batil depressing, I have to say that I don’t. On the contrary I find it uplifting to meet people like Samia. Everywhere I see this indomitable will to survive. I see the strength of human spirit, and I see what humans are really like, that there’s something inside us that will go on.
Samia was open about the challenges of life in Batil, in particular that there wasn’t enough food. Because the roads to the south are cut off in the rainy season, food and medical supplies have to be airlifted in. When it rains heavily, there are pools of stagnant water, and the poor sanitation means that diseases like malaria and Hepatitis E are rife.
But at the same time, the camp is a hive of activity: everywhere people are doing something productive, using whatever they can find. People have set up tea shops and crafted stoves out of the cans that the vegetable oil rations come in. Stalls sell freshly baked bread that has been cooked in hollowed-out termite mounds. Even though there isn’t much space, some people have planted small vegetable gardens with seeds they were able to bring from home. Their ingenuity and enthusiasm is staggering.
By spending time talking to the refugees in Batil, CAFOD has learned from their strength and dynamism, and designed programmes that don’t just give them hand-outs, but help them to help themselves.
We’re aiming to support people in growing food by distributing tools and seeds and by setting up kitchen gardens. We’re also planning to give training to entrepreneurs like Samia, to give them basic literacy, numeracy and book-keeping skills. We want them to realise their plans of earning enough money to support their families. We’re also aiming to prevent the spread of disease, by improving hygiene conditions in the communities around the camp and by distributing soap and mosquito nets to people who can’t afford them.
The situation for refugees in Batil is undoubtedly very challenging. Before I said goodbye to Samia, I asked her what the most difficult thing had been for her – and I immediately wished that I hadn’t. She didn’t answer quickly, as she has before, but looked away. Our translator thought she hadn’t understood and began to repeat, but stopped when she nodded. She answered uncharacteristically quietly. “It’s the war,” she said. “It divided my family”.
Samia and the other women and men I met in Batil face incredible hardships, but they don’t see themselves as victims who deserve pity. They are entrepreneurs with phenomenal drive. We want to support them as they help themselves recover, with dignity and respect.