Food for the soul: refugees find safety and security in Dadaab
CARE's counselors provide healing for the wounds of Somali refugees
by Rick Perera, CARE Communications Coordinator, Horn of Africa
Janet Ndoti Ndila is a tough lady with a tender heart. She’s the lead counselor at CARE’s drop-in support center at the Dagahaley refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya. Here she offers a trained ear, and a map through the maze of camp bureaucracy, to people who have suffered some of the most horrific things imaginable in their flight from hunger and despair.
Janet and her colleagues are the first resort for thousands of weary, dejected Somalis pouring out of their famine-stricken homeland into this complex of camps, the largest of its kind in the world, now sheltering nearly 430,000 people. She doesn’t let the experience dampen her upbeat, take-charge personality. But there are days when it can get overwhelming.
“I’ve worked in worse places – places where there’s immediate, ongoing bloodshed. That’s not the case here, but the things people have lived through…” Her voice trails off.
Providing physical and emotional rest
Janet leads the way to CARE’s distribution center for new arrivals, a large tent where refugees collect initial rations to tide them over until they are registered as camp residents. An efficient operation whisks them through as they collect plastic mats, jerry cans, cornmeal, beans, salt, oil and other essentials. Nearby, a set of taps offers plenty of safe water for washing and drinking.
More than physical hunger and thirst are looked after. Janet and her staff usher in group after group of tired, bewildered families and sit them down on rough-hewn benches in the shade of a canvas tent. Janet – a native of Kangalu in eastern Kenya – speaks to them reassuringly through a Somali interpreter. Here they get their first orientation to Dadaab: how to negotiate the labyrinth of services available, register for food distributions and shelter, and gain access to medical care for the weak, the malnourished, the sick and those injured during the harsh journey.
There are wounds to the spirit, too, and these are Janet’s most important responsibility. Most of the refugees have seen and experienced terrible things before arriving here. Not just the suffering of poverty, hunger and warfare back in Somalia, but the trauma of being uprooted from home and family, and the loss of loved ones: the elderly, frail and children who did not survive the trip. Many fell prey to bandits along the way, robbed of everything when they were at their most vulnerable. And in every group of new arrivals there are women bearing terrible secrets, of brutal violence and rape suffered in the lawless wilds they were forced to cross in search of safety.
Refugees counseling refugees
CARE’s paracounselors are a team of 18, as energetic and outspoken as their boss. They are all refugees themselves, recruited in the camps by CARE and specially trained to handle initial consultations. They are familiar, compassionate faces, fellow Somalis who understand what their compatriots have been through. The paracounselors quickly identify survivors of sexual violence and other particularly vulnerable people, “fast-track” them for special assistance including food and essential household items, and refer them if needed for medical attention. Women who are in immediate danger from domestic violence can take shelter in a community-based “safe haven” until they have somewhere safe to go.
Nearly 4,700 refugees have come to CARE for counseling and support in just over three months – 1,111 during the week of Aug. 28-Sept. 3 alone. The women who seek Janet’s help have suffered more in a few weeks than anyone should bear in a lifetime.
Responding to the different needs of men and women
Today Janet met a client, who arrived two months ago and set up housekeeping on the outskirts of Dahagaley camp, in a crude hut made of cardboard boxes on a frame of bundled sticks. Before leaving Somalia, as her family’s meager farm shriveled to nothing, the woman watched two of her three children die of hunger and disease. Crossing the desert on foot, she was robbed of everything – even her precious supply of water – then gang-raped. It is a horrifying story, but the woman speaks with a steady tone. She wants to give voice to the terror, to speak out on behalf of those who must remain silent in fear.
Men, too, suffer their own nightmares. Initially many stayed behind in Somalia to watch over homesteads and herds. But as famine continues to spread, crops have been decimated. When their last cattle starve, men are forced to make the trek to Dadaab in search of help. For those from proud, ancient pastoralist traditions, who measure wealth in terms of how many cattle a person owns, the loss of a sense of identity is devastating.
“Not quite as many men come as women, for cultural reasons, but they do come,” said Sharif Ahmed Abdulahi, a CARE paracounselor trained in community development, life skills and counseling. He and his colleagues are careful to respect tradition and work in harmony with community norms. “Sometimes people ask me to tell them what to do. I say: I can counsel you, but I can’t advise you. If you want advice, you should go to an elder.”
Janet is busy recruiting additional staff to reach more people in need. She wants to hire and train more female counselors – just under half of the current refugee workers are women – but it’s hard to find candidates who are literate, and many young girls are married off at age 14 or so.
But Janet is not someone who gives up easily. She thrives on challenge, and finds this work incredibly rewarding. One thing is clear: she’s not going anywhere soon. “I plan to stay as long as I still like it. It will be a few years.”