By Lane Hartill, Special to The Christian Science Monitor
BUDUBURAM REFUGEE CAMP, GHANA - Wearing Calvin Klein jeans and hairstyles worthy of the Oscars, young Liberian women prance down dirty streets here in polished pumps, their wake of perfume catching the attention of young men.
It's not the expected image of a West African refugee camp, where food lines and buzzing flies are the norm. But this isn't the typical refugee camp.
This is Buduburam, a sprawling complex housing 25,000 refugees, where dozens wait to check their e-mail at the Internet cafe, people lick strawberry ice-cream cones, and posters encourage young women to sign up for the Miss Liberia Pageant.
"I've never seen a refugee camp with an Internet cafe," says Thomas Albrecht, the head of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) office in Ghana's capital, Accra. "There are a lot of positive features." Mr. Albrecht points to the active health clinic and a women's group working to start a garbage collection program and a daycare facility.
Though Buduburam is hardly the ideal place to live, humanitarian officials say the camp is a success story, a model of how self-reliant refugees can build a thriving community and work hand-in-hand with aid agencies.
But overcrowding has taken a toll. The camp is well over its 10,000-person capacity. And as the four-month crisis in neighboring Ivory Coast drags on, and the UNHCR prepares for tens of thousands of possible asylum seekers, the problems Buduburam faces present a cautionary tale.
With the only border open to the Ivory Coast, Ghana is the country of choice for many. Mr. Albrecht says that the UNHCR is preparing for 35,000 asylum seekers and refugees - both Ivorian nationals who cross the border as asylum seekers and Liberian and Sierra Leonean refugees who were living in the Ivory Coast. They are also planning for 15,000 Ghanaians who might return, and a transit population - people passing through on their way to other countries - of 132,000. Nini Akiwumi, the chairman of Ghana's Refugee Board, says any influx would hurt the country.
He says Ghana doesn't have the financial means to care for an exodus of refugees, and adds that any large number presents a security risk, as fleeing rebels could be mixed in with the refugees. "We would expect the international community to come to our assistance," Mr. Akiwumi says.
In its salad days, Buduburam was the Ritz of refugee camps, with its health clinic, numerous churches, and schools. Maxwell Owusu, an anthropologist from the University of Michigan, who has studied Buduburam, notes that its success can be attributed to the refugees' determination, Ghanaians' generosity, and a huge response from nongovernmental organizations.
"Ultimately the greatest credit goes to the refugees themselves, especially the women who were determined against all odds to work hard to make a decent home away from home for themselves and their children," wrote Mr. Owusu in an article about the camp.
Indeed, the camp feels more like a hip African town. Video clubs show Nigerian action movies in English and Indian romances in Hindi.
"They can't understand it," says the attendant. "They come for the music and love." Stores sell "I love New York" shirts and CDs by Kenny Rogers. There's even a Mini Mart with American cheese balls and German cornflakes.
But Buduburam's once-proud visage has sagged with age and overcrowding. The camp could become more packed if more Liberians arrive from Ivory Coast. The Ivorian military and three different rebel groups in the Ivory Coast have been squaring off since last fall.
Residents, some of whom have lived here more than a decade, describe dire living conditions and say idleness eats at them daily. They whisper that only the people who receive money from friends and relatives in the US and abroad - about 10 percent of the camp - can afford luxuries in the camp stores. For the rest, life is a struggle.
Some, like Felicia Jackson, are reduced to begging. The young mother tries to console her crying 4-year-old child, whose neck and shoulders are covered with a rash. She used up all her savings - seven years of selling fish in a refugee camp in the Ivory Coast - to pay bribes to the Ivorian military on her way out of the country. "I feel embarrassed," she says, bouncing the baby on her lap. "I have to beg people for money."
Water is the biggest concern for refugees. Water hasn't run in the camp since 1999, when it was disconnected from the national water network. People are forced to buy water for 500 cedis (6 cents) a bucket - a stiff price for the unemployed. If residents can't afford it, they collect water from a stagnant green pond that doubles as a swimming hole. Toilets cost 800 cedis, so most opt to go in the scrubland bordering the camp where the threat is high of snake bites or stabbings from bandits.
Even with a handful of schools, they still can't accommodate the more than 7,000 schoolchildren with only 164 teachers, many of whom are not properly trained.
"On the ground they can't even afford water to take a bath, how can they afford to send people to school?" asks Moses Bah, the Coordinator of the Education Committee in the camp and the former education minister of Liberia, himself now a refugee.
For those done with school, it's a battle with boredom. Cheguavara Sherman, for example, can't wait to leave, but he has no money and nowhere to go. To kill time, he goes to the Gateway Internet cafe to surf the Web for 70 cents an hour. Mr. Sherman scans websites looking for e-mail addresses, and then explains his situation to the distant strangers in hopes that they may help him. He has sent letters to several people. "Most have not replied."