A girl carries her brother across the Mai-Aini refugee camp near Shire in northern Ethiopia. (photo: Petterik Wiggers/Panos Pictures)
Elsa stands in her home in Mai-Aini, where she has lived for more than four years. (photo: Petterik Wiggers/Panos Pictures)
A woman guides her donkey past the makeshift shelters housing Mai-Aini’s thousands of refugees. (photo: Petterik Wiggers/Panos Pictures)
Jerry and her friends prepare for a dance recital. (photo: Petterik Wiggers/Panos Pictures)
Editor’s note: Last spring, Fanuel Abebe, project director for Jesuit Refugee Service (J.R.S.), visited the Mai-Aini Camp in Ethiopia, where thousands of Eritrean refugees have settled. We asked him to describe part of that visit. Names have been changed for the protection of those involved.
After a very rough day of driving in the hot, scorching sun across the dusty barren land of the camp, we approached the front of the hut, knocking on the door and calling to those inside. A green plastic sheet issued by the United Nations was suspended from the doorway. It was around 1:30 p.m. As we entered the mud house, we were welcomed with a warm smile by Jerry, whose mother, Elsa, is a client of Jesuit Refugee Service.
Elsa was lying down, exhausted. Her daughter was working on the dough for ambasha, a local variety of Ethiopian bread. The hut contained little — just a few cooking materials and two beds made of mud attached to the mud floor.
Though tired from her rigorous daily routine — which includes collecting firewood every day for cooking in an ongoing struggle to keep her three daughters fed — Elsa warmly welcomed us, insisting on offering us coffee.
As we talked over our coffee, we were surprised at her optimism. We were also delighted at the work J.R.S. had done in keeping Elsa’s spirits high despite her very difficult life as a refugee.
Elsa’s face brightened as she told us about Jerry’s performance at a J.R.S. program for music and the performing arts at the camp. From an early age, Elsa told us, Jerry had proven to be a talented dancer and performer.
Now in her mid-30’s, Elsa explains that she herself had a great passion for music and dance when she was young, and is delighted to see her daughter share that passion. This was one of the reasons behind Elsa’s determination to hang on to life — J.R.S. has helped her keep her hopes alive.
Jerry is one of the many young people living in the Mai-Aini Refugee Camp taking classes at the J.R.S. program for music and the performing arts. Besides music, J.R.S. is also engaged in providing five other types of psychosocial support for children. These programs, which benefit not only the children, but the extended families living in the camp, include counseling, sports and recreational activities, theater and library services.
In spite of the desolation in Mai-Aini, Elsa dreams of a better life for her children. She hopes she and her three daughters can resettle in another country. But with that dream come concerns about how she will be able to support three daughters in a foreign country. She busies herself learning marketable skills, but what she needs most is some normalcy. Elsa once had a happy life. She was married and a mother of four. But then the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea began. Eritrean by blood, Elsa was deported from her home in Ethiopia, separated from her Ethiopian husband and forced to return to Eritrea with her three daughters and son.
What she had expected to be a homecoming quickly turned into a nightmare. Her family had not welcomed her marriage to an Ethiopian and rejected her; she became an outcast. She had to return to Ethiopia, but was forced to leave behind her son, who had to take part in mandatory national military service. On foot, she and her three young daughters plodded through the wilderness, crossing mountains, valleys and rivers, hiding from soldiers. Miraculously, Elsa and her girls made it back to Ethiopia in October 2010, joining more than 17,000 Eritrean refugees living in the Mai-Aini Camp.
Today, Elsa has nothing to her name. But she has one thing no one can take away: hope. She lives every day hoping that she and her daughters will one day start a new life together. She hopes they will have a home of their own in a new country. She hopes she will have a job.
And she dreams one day her daughter, Jerry, will dance.