© Klaus Bo Christensen / DRC
© Klaus Bo Christensen / DRC

Hope is just as important as water

In Hitsats camp for Eritrean refugees in Northern Ethiopia many people just pass through looking elsewhere for a future. The Danish Refugee Council is trying to create a community, so that more people will have a reason to stay. At least for a while.
 
 

15.09.2016

“They must have left. I haven’t seen them for a while and their field looks unkempt.”

The words are those of Tsionawit Gebre-Yohannes, Program Manager for the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) in Shire in Northern Ethiopia. She is speaking about a couple of young Eritrean refugees, who used to grow vegetables in a small plot of land in Hitsats camp. Now the crops are unkempt and the young men have been absent from the social gatherings in the camp. They must have moved on.

Most of the residents in Hitsats camp move on quickly. Toward other places where they see a better chance for a future.

“When we first came here, everyone described Hitsats as the place refugees go to leave. There was no sense of coherence, no sense of community, no sense of togetherness,” Tsionawit says.

The team from the Danish Refugee Council is trying to change this with funding from the Danish Embassy in Ethiopia.

“We try to provide people with a space where they have the opportunity to reflect on what they have been through and the time to better understand the risks of onward movement,” says Patrick Phillips, who is the Area Manager for DRC in Shire.

The Danish Refugee Council has worked in Shire in Northern Ethiopia since April 2016. The work is focused in Hitsats refugee camp, which is a home to an estimated 10.000 and 13.000 Eritrean refugees. About half the refugees in Hitsats are believed to move on from the camp within the first six months after their arrival. The work in Hitsats is supported by funding from the Danish Embassy in Ethiopia and in cooperation with ARRA – the Ethiopian Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs.

A small part of Hitsats camp which is home for somewhere around 10,000 til 13,000 refugees from Eritrea. Photo: Klaus Bo.A small part of Hitsats camp which is home for somewhere around 10,000 til 13,000 refugees from Eritrea. Photo: Klaus Bo.

The essence of DRC’s work in Shire and Hitsats camp is creating a sense of community. Helping to build a sense of belonging for the refugees, giving them opportunities to grow, to interact with others, to be entertained, giving them a reason to stay and think things through, and not rushing out on a perilous journey towards Europe.

“We are trying to create a sense of community in a situation where people tend to be very vulnerable and often alone,” says Patrick Phillips.

So just how do you create a community in a refugee camp?

First and foremost, it is about seeing refugees as people before anything else, Tsionawit explains. She herself has a refugee background and was granted asylum in Australia, along with her family, when she was a child.

“I’ve seen many amazing things people can do, when given a chance. I’m an example. I was a refugee once. A very well looked after refugee, but still, if the people who were good to us in Nairobi and in Australia had not been there, then I don’t know, where I would be. I definitely would not be in this position today. So it’s not a matter of somebody being more or somebody being less. It’s the opportunities people are willing to give you that makes the difference and this is what we are trying to replicate here,” she says and continues:

“It’s understanding that access to a university is in some ways just as important as access to water. Not in the same way of course. But in the span of a lifetime, then it is just as important. Because if you live a life where you are never able to actualize some sense of yourself and your dreams, it is not a full life. You can have all the water and food in the world, but if you don’t feel like your life is going somewhere and that you are doing something, you are not really living.”

So what exactly is DRC doing in Hitsats to create the sense of togetherness, community and opportunities?

The organization has worked closely with the people in the camp to plan the activities and services DRC is currently providing.

 

The Secondary school will serve both the refugees and the local community. It is the first Secondary school in the area and construction will be finished in December. Photo: Klaus Bo.The Secondary school will serve both the refugees and the local community. It is the first Secondary school in the area and construction will be finished in December. Photo: Klaus Bo.

BUILDING A SECONDARY SCHOOL

There have not previously been opportunities for the refugees in Hitsats – or the surrounding local community – to attend secondary school. As of December, this will change. Construction of a secondary school is currently underway in a partnership between DRC and the Norwegian Refugee Council.

The secondary school will serve a string of purposes. First and foremost, it will provide education. But it will also work as a community space, where the library can be used for trainings in the evenings and during school holidays. The workers constructing the school are all locals and refugees. As part of DRC’s approach, the workers are not only offered employment, but also opportunities to enhance their skills through vocational training.

Access to education is key for making Hitsats a place where people wish to stay longer.

“We use the phrase ‘transitional solutions,’ to describe opportunities we can provide until the point where people can integrate [into the host community] or go back. This won’t be for a while, but until this time, life shouldn’t be halted. There are things that people can positively engage in and education will always be one, because it opens up opportunities and that is what people need,” Tsionawit explains.

 

Yodit and Henok hope, that passing the entrance exam to university will change the lives of not only themselves but also their two year old daughter. Photo: Klaus Bo.Yodit and Henok hope, that passing the entrance exam to university will change the lives of not only themselves but also their two year old daughter. Photo: Klaus Bo.

HELPING PEOPLE STUDY FOR AN ENTRANCE EXAM TO ETHIOPIAN UNIVERSITIES

Helping refugees take advantage of opportunities, which already exist, is what inspired the university entrance exam activity. For three months leading up to the entrance exams on August 29th over 70 refugees participated in an intensive preparatory course offered by DRC.

For 29 year old Henok and his wife, 27 year old Yodit, passing marks could change their lives. A few days before taking the exam, they explain:

Like so many others here, they fled Eritrea after Henok was forced into indefinite military service. When he refused to continue serving, he was detained for over a year. For eight months he was locked away and did not see sunlight.

“We used to have a beautiful life in Eritrea, but the people in charge have destroyed everything good there. I had a choice. I could either leave my family and go to the military or I could come here,” he says.

Now he is hoping for a positive result on the entrance exam, so he and his family can leave Hitsats camp behind. Not least because of their two year old daughter.

“When DRC told us they would help us prepare for the entrance exam, I became so happy, because I was hopeful again. I had not had that feeling for more than 10 years. When I came here, I had no idea that I could get an education,” Henok says.

He hopes to study political science, while Yodit hopes to pursue psychology.

“One day I hope to be back in Asmara (the capitol of Eritrea) and help bring change to my country. My greatest wish is to be able to give my daughter a perfect life. I want to help her be the person I could have been in another world,” he says.

UPDATE: Both Yodit and Henok has passed the entrance exam and have been accepted to university. Congratulations. 

 

64A small part of Hitsats camp which is home for somewhere around 10,000 til 13,000 refugees from Eritrea. Photo: Klaus Bo.

INTRODUCING AN ORIENTATION AND MENTORSHIP PROGRAM FOR NEW ARRIVALS

Have you ever imagined what it would be like to arrive in a refugee camp? Alone. Not knowing anyone. This is the situation of most refugees arriving in Hitsats. Many are minors. Fleeing to safety on their own. Around 1,300 of the camp’s estimated 13,000 inhabitants are unaccompanied and separated minors.

“The most vulnerable people in Hitsats are young people, because they are often the most likely to engage in onward movement,” says Patrick Phillips, Area Manager for DRC.

“That is why our focus is on creating a sense of community. One way we try to make the people arriving to Hitsats feel more at ease and give them a greater sense of belonging is through the orientation program we are offering,” Patrick says.

DRC is implementing an orientation and mentorship program, so that new arrivals in Hitsats will be paired with another refugee, who will support them as a mentor for their first few months while they are adjusting to life in the camp.

 

Salam Band consists of 15 members who perform music, spoken word and poetry. They hope to entertain as well as inform their audiences. Photo: Klaus Bo.Salam Band consists of 15 members who perform music, spoken word and poetry. They hope to entertain as well as inform their audiences. Photo: Klaus Bo.

SETTING THE STAGE FOR ENTERTAINMENT AND AWARENESS-RAISING THROUGH SONGS, STORYTELLING, PLAYS AND POETRY

In a building across the road from the camp lies the culture capitol of Hitsats. Inside the one room house is a string of music instruments. This is the home of Salam Band, which translates into Peace Band. There are about 15 members – it varies from time to time. The group plays music, performs poetry, spoken word and write skits.

The band’s songs are about their daily lives, the reality the young band members live in. The dangers of migration. Loneliness. Children committing suicide.

“We started the band in order to entertain the refugees here in the camp,” says 26 years old Habtom.

20 year old Yohannes quickly adds that the entertainment also has a more serious side to it.

“We try to inform the people here about the risks of migration in different forms. Through poetry and music. In ways they will want to listen,” he says.

The only woman present at today’s band practice is 23 year old Simret. She explains:

“Our main aim is to make sure that the people here do not rush out to sea and die. We want to save lives.”

 

Every Friday hundreds of people take a break from everyday life and loose themselves in entertainment. Photo: Klaus Bo.Every Friday hundreds of people take a break from everyday life and loose themselves in entertainment. Photo: Klaus Bo.

But Salam Band’s message cannot have an effect if no one is there to hear it. Luckily there are many, many willing to listen in the camp. Every Friday, DRC organizes entertainment and awareness raising events. More than 700 people showed up for the last one. Listening to poetry, to music, to jokes and leaving the hopelessness of the camp behind, at least for a while.

“You measure success by the joy on the young people’s faces. It’s incredible. When they are hearing a joke, they are so smitten, that you can snap your fingers right in front of their faces and they won’t even see it. They are so caught up,” Tsionawit explains.

She continues:

“Entertainment is not THE solution here. But if you can’t go back and you can’t integrate and you are here for what feels like an infinite time, then the opportunity to be lost in an engaging and stimulating activity is priceless.”

For Patrick Phillips, the work with Salam band and other creative people in the camp serves serval purposes.

“We try to provide people with a space where they have the time to reflect about what they have been through and to better understand the risks of engaging in onward movement. Our approach to raising awareness about these risks, however, is through people sharing their own stories and through art forms which people are interested in. We don’t believe in lecturing people, and instead want to create a meaningful dialogue.”

 

To learn more about the residents of Hitsats DRC is conducting a yearlong study in the camp. Photo: Klaus Bo.To learn more about the residents of Hitsats DRC is conducting a yearlong study in the camp. Photo: Klaus Bo.

RESEARCH ON TRENDS OF ONWARD MOVEMENT AND PEOPLE’S INTENTIONS

One of the great challenges of working in Hitsats camp is the lack of information about who is in the camp, where they come from and, not least, where they intend to go and why they are leaving. The DRC team has a lot of individual answers from the people they work with. But nothing more substantial at the moment. Therefore, they are undertaking a yearlong study to collect more information about the intentions and motivations of people regarding their decision to stay or move on.

Every day a team of people – themselves refugees – put on their DRC vests, pick up their tablets and go out in the camp to ask questions. When did you arrive? Where have you come from? Are you planning on staying? Why not? Etc. etc.

“To more effectively address issues of migration by providing relevant alternatives, you need more information,” Patrick Phillips, Area Manager for DRC, says.

One of the enumerators is 19 year old Salam. Like so many others in the camp, she came alone. Leaving behind her mother and two sisters in Eritrea.

“It’s difficult being alone here. I have no family. I miss my two sisters who were my best friends,” she says.

But the work she does for DRC has provided some comfort and a sense of purpose:

“I am very happy with what I am doing. I get the opportunity to get out of the house and meet new people every day. This is much better than just staying in the house with nothing to do.”

 

Tsionawit Gebres-Yohannes talks to the residents in Hitsats daily. For her and DRC the work is founded on meeting people as they are and with respect. Photo: Klaus Bo.Tsionawit Gebres-Yohannes talks to the residents in Hitsats daily. For her and DRC the work is founded on meeting people as they are and with respect. Photo: Klaus Bo.

To protect Eritrean refugees from the risks of onward movement, they need viable alternatives, a community to support them, and a sense of hope. DRC is working on achieving this in close cooperation with the people living in the camp.

Tsionawit Gebres-Yohannes underlines, that is all about seeing refugees as people.

“We see people here for who they are. We say, you are here now. But you still have a lot of the same things I have. You have hopes, you have aspirations, you want more in life, and there is nothing wrong with that.”

“We try to provide a little bit of help, big or small, and show that there are things that can be achieved within this very, very confined life that they live. It is extremely confined. I can decide tomorrow where I want to be in the world and if I had the money and the energy, I could go. They can’t. They are in a camp.”

That is why DRC strives to bring hope to the camp, so it does not just exist outside of it.