"We packed the bare minimum, leaving my sewing machines and fabrics behind," says Mondi René, a tailor from Daimapleu in Western Ivory Coast. He is among the hundreds of thousands who fled the violence that broke out in his country after a disputed presidential election in November 2010.
The forces of Laurent Gbagbo, Ivory Coast's outgoing president, who refuses to leave power, have been battling forces loyal to the internationally recognized winner of the election, Alassane Outtarra. One night in late February, fighting around Rene's village was so intense that he and his wife Zransseu Elise gathered their four children and fled, seeking refuge in neighboring Liberia.
They joined perhaps a million Ivoirians who have left their homes during the fighting. About 125,000 of those in the western part of Ivory Coast have headed for Liberia, and as many as 150,000 are expected to join them in the coming months if the violence does not abate.
Mondi, Zranesseu and their children walked for two days. Exhausted and hungry, they came to Beatuo in Nimba County, Liberia, where a local villager welcomed them into his home and offered them a meal. "It is how we stopped our walk and settled in Beatuo," says Zransseu.
To help these refugees, who prefer to settle in communities rather than in a camp, CRS, with support from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, is building temporary shelters that are erected on land belonging to host families. The CRS shelters will be built in 7-8 of 15 relocation villages in Nimba County, beginning with Beatuo. Mondi's host family has now welcomed more than 50 refugees who are staying in their house and on their land.
Refugees prefer such host communities for a number of reasons. The relocation villages are closer to the border where refugees can maintain phone contact with their family members, even as far away as Abidjan, on the other side of the border. In some cases, refugees and their hosts speak the same language and share the same cultural values. And Liberians have not forgotten that they were once refugees from their own civil war, welcomed by host communities in Ivory Coast. So they open their arms in return.
CRS is helping both the Ivoirian refugees and their Liberian host families with the construction of 1,000 shelters in eight villages, providing housing for 5,000 people. Photo by Jean-Philippe Debus for CRS
CRS' shelter project provides jobs to both members of the host communities and refugees. The goal is to quickly reach a pace at which more than 50 structures are completed per week until a total of 1,000 shelters are built. This is particularly challenging in an area where frequent heavy rains can wash out roads and prevent building materials from reaching villages. So the CRS team is planning to pre-position supplies in targeted villages to prevent any inventory problems. Moreover, CRS has built a way station at New Yoropea for around 90 families waiting to move to the refugee camp at Bahn or to other relocation communities. More recently, CRS has been tasked with building a transit camp for 1,500 refugees in Zwedru, Grand Gedeh County. Grand Gedeh has seen the largest influx of refugees from the recent fighting in Ivory Coast, accounting for more than 30,000 new refugees into Liberia.
In Beatuo, Mondi's family and other relatives staying with them moved out of their host's house and into one of the shelters as soon as CRS started building them. "The shelter is very practical. It's not hot and we sleep well," Mondi says. He doesn't know how long he will be there. He is not very optimistic about the current situation in his home country.
"We regularly hear distant gunshots, so there is no way to return. We need to struggle here to gain our daily bread. We maintain hope to move ahead," he says. Holding a framed picture of his 20-year-old daughter Christelle, who stayed behind in Ivory Coast, Mondi adds: "What's hard, beyond struggling to meet basic needs, is that we miss our elder daughter who is in Abidjan [Ivory Coast's economic capital]. We have no news from her and we have not been able to yet inform her about our whereabouts."
To try and make a living in Beatuo, Mondi was able to borrow a sewing machine from his host, and whatever profit he makes sewing and selling clothes will be shared between them. "It is a fair deal, but I need some seed money to purchase fabric so as to make clothes that my wife can then sell. She has no activity at the moment."
As food has emerged as one of the most urgent needs—many refugees rely on the generosity of their hosts—it is vital for people like Mondi to establish a livelihood to buy food. CRS will soon help Liberian host communities and refugee families prepare land to grow rice. That program will provide short-term cash incentives to rehabilitate swampland for the next planting season, which will provide cash to purchase food and other items. Tools and seeds provided by CRS' signature Seed Vouchers and Fairs will allow families to prepare the soil for rice production, supported by training from CRS, to replenish their food supply and enable host communities to continue to support refugee families.