The Adi-Harush refugee camp shelters some 12,000 people. (photo: Petterik Wiggers)
Children play outdoors in the Adi-Harush camp. (photo: Petterik Wiggers)
Residents socialize in Mai-Aini refugee camp. (photo: Petterik Wiggers)
Correction: One section of this story referred mistakenly to a refugee camp in Badme; the author has clarified that these references were to the Mai-Aini camp. The editorial team apologizes for any confusion.
With her hair tucked under a scarf, Netsanet busily brews coffee. It takes time to prepare the traditional beverage of the Horn of Africa, and customers are already arriving.
In the shady courtyard of her sheet metal and straw house, she has set up a café where her compatriots from the Mai-Aini camp in northern Ethiopia come to sip coffee, take their breakfast or just chat with this generous woman in her 30’s.
Despite her smile, her heart is full of painful memories of the world she left behind.
“It was horrible, but when you are far away, you forget these things,” she says. In this refugee camp, there are thousands of people such as Netsanet. They left their former lives, their relatives — sometimes even putting them in danger — and fled the country they love.
“My native city is beautiful, the weather is nice,” she continues nostalgically. “Here it is very hot, it makes my children sick.”
Her reasons for leaving are simple and are far from unique.
Ethiopia hosts the second-largest number of refugees in the African continent, sheltering more than 900,000 registered refugees and asylum seekers, according to United Nations High Commissioners for Refugees (UNHCR). They mainly come from South Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea and Sudan, according to Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA), the Ethiopian government’s counterpart of UNHCR, whose mandate is to receive and assist refugees and asylum seekers. Those from north of Ethiopia are sheltered in four camps around the town of Shire, in the northern region of Tigray.
And they keep on coming.
“There is an average of 120 people who cross the Ethiopian border daily [in this way], up to 410 per day,” explains Mohammed Mitike, ARRA program head in Shire.
“More than 70 percent are young and more than 10 percent are unaccompanied and separated children. Out of the 180,000 registered refugees, only 40,000 are registered for food distribution.” Some of these people may settle in the biggest town of the region, Mekele, or in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital where there are many urban refugees. Many others continue the road to exile, through Sudan and the dangerous Libyan route. Some dare the dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean Sea, where more than 3,000 migrants died in 2017.
“Secondary movements are a big challenge,” Mr. Mitike adds. In the camps, huge billboards show people blindfolded to highlight the danger of illegal immigration.
Netsanet knows the danger only too well. In 2013, Netsanet’s first husband, who had found refuge in Libya, asked his wife for money to pay smugglers to help him leave. He attempted to cross the Mediterranean and drowned.
Netsanet eventually remarried — but her second husband also met a tragic fate.
Though he did not attempt the crossing, he was deemed too impertinent in the eyes of the authorities. When he dared to complain about the unjust demolition of their home, security forces took him to prison.
“They thought he was part of the opposition,” Netsanet adds. Two days later, her husband’s body was brought back home.
After the death of her second husband, Netsanet decided to leave at all costs.
“I became mad, I didn’t want to stay,” she explains. She needed to give her two children, now 12 and 4, a better life than what they knew.
Netsanet tried three times to cross the border but she was spotted twice because her baby was crying. The third time, she gave him sleeping pills — a desperate act she regrets today because she believes it is what now causes him to cry so frequently in the café.
At times, Netsanet considers leaving the camp, trying to make her way illegally into Sudan, but the danger holds her back. The memory of what happened to her first husband is still there. She is also afraid of all the stories she has heard of human trafficking and trade in contraband. In 2017, a CNN documentary chronicled the fate awaiting many who flee and end up in Libya, where some are sold in slave markets.
So, Netsanet waits.
To follow her daily journey, and the journey of thousands of others like her, is to encounter a world of frustrating delays, heartbreak and homesickness.
But it is also to encounter a world where the church has been a healing balm — a source of prayer and possibility, and where people have also managed to hold on to that most elusive of qualities: hope.
A 27-year-old musician named Robel is a compatriot of Netsanet trying to make the best of his life in exile. He knows many people who are bored in the camps. They would like to leave but are discouraged. Others have managed to do it before him, either legally or illegally. Some friends have resettled in the West and have sent him money to set up his business in the Adi-Harush camp, about 11 miles from Mai-Aini.
He first opened a humble hair salon and then bought a small house to launch “Robi Video Center,” where residents of the camp can reload their phones for 2 birrs, the Ethiopian currency, and collect film on their flash drive.
“Everybody knows me here,” he says with a teasing little smile. No wonder: He is the only one in Adi-Harush camp who has crossed the border to his native land three times.
The first time came when he was a minor. “The Red Cross took me,” he explains.
The second time, he wanted to flee the compulsory military service that had been established in 1995. He managed to escape and crossed the border again. He was then convinced by a friend in the camp to go to Sudan. They were kidnapped there and taken back.
“They sent us to an underground prison,” he continues. For a year, he did not see the light of day, and says he was tortured. “Then, for six months,” he says, “we were responsible for preparing the rations of 20,000 soldiers.”
Currently, he wants to settle in for a while with his girlfriend and her 14-year-old son.
“I’m happy like that,” he says. His life is now in the camp. But for how long?
There are nearly 12,000 people living in this camp run by UNHCR and ARRA. In the afternoon, they try to stay out of the blinding sun. The main street where the children play is littered with small shops, restaurants, cafés and a youth center. A few steps away from Robel’s shop, dozens of youngsters watch a football game. Host communities also cross the camp to return home. They usually sell water and charcoal to the people in the camp.
“We are trying to create links between both groups,” said Biniam Asefa, acting project director of Jesuit Refugee Service (J.R.S.) in this northern Ethiopian location.
But, he adds, there are tensions — particularly on the topic of Eritrea, and the disputed border territory that 20 years ago sparked a brutal war. The bloody conflict left an estimated 100,000 dead and more than a million displaced. Though the violence has halted, a cold standoff persists — a state described in both countries as “no war, no peace.”
In the Mai-Aini camp, some of the children have never seen their homeland. A well-known joke in the camps gives them a nickname: “Tecno,” the name of the Chinese manufacturer that assembles mobile phones in the country. “It’s because these children were assembled here,” explains a social worker.
Some other children are called “Touch,” because they only touched their country briefly before fleeing it with their parents.
Despite the sameness, the tedium, and the insufferable heat, the people in the camps are finding opportunities to develop new skills and think about a brighter future.
Some humanitarian organizations are taking care of the basic needs of the families. Other groups, such as J.R.S., are also giving them psychosocial support or offering children recreational activities in the afternoon after school, such as traditional dance, music and drawing. This helps free up the parents to start their own businesses, and imagine a future beyond the daily boredom of the camp — boredom that can lead some to try and flee, putting their lives at risk.
Importantly, many in Mai-Aini also find solace in faith, and significant support is being provided through the church. The parish priest of Shire, Abba Ghiday of the Ge’ez (Ethiopian) Catholic Eparchy of Adigrat — ministers to many in the camps, assisted by 14 trained catechists.
“These people regularly animate the daily faith journey of the refugees,” says Argaw Fantu, the regional director for CNEWA in Ethiopia. He says catechists are available to lead community prayers, teach classes for young people preparing to receive the sacraments, and conduct Bible lessons, among other things.
The priest and catechists are helping meet needs others cannot.
“Psychosocial and spiritual needs are the most important concerns that humanitarian organizations are not able to support, for various reasons,” Mr. Fantu explains. “Especially when it comes to assisting them in their faith journey during such very challenging moments. When hopelessness is looming, these classes and services give them hope to dream for tomorrow,” he says.
“As a Catholic, I am happy to serve my people on behalf of the church,” says one of the catechists who requested anonymity.
“Faith is a major thing. Without praying, we cannot manage our life. We are restricted here; there is not enough food, not enough water, we can’t work, we can’t move from place to place.
“Faith is making our life a little bit easier.”
Also making life a little bit easier are “livelihood programs,” according to the social workers of J.R.S.
One beneficiary of such a program is a 26-year-old mother named Abrehet, who receives a modest salary for sewing sanitary pads and diapers in the camp.
“It is satisfying to get paid for what you do,” she says with a shy smile.
She has been living here for the past eight years with her family.
“I don’t have the money to leave the camp. If I had, I would try my best, but it’s a risk to go outside.”
In an effort to convince people not to flee illegally, Ethiopia recently launched a comprehensive refugee response plan that is part of the Global Compact on Refugees. This ambitious plan was conceived by the United Nations in 2016 to promote self-reliance. Indeed, the government of Ethiopia is planning to stop its “encampment policy” in the next ten years. As a result, refugees will be integrated into society by granting work permits and legal documents so they may be hired within Ethiopia — especially in its industrial parks that are central to foreign investors.
“It can be a good opportunity to help ourselves,” Abrehet explains in her tiny house. “We don’t really know the situation outside the camp, though.”
Her husband, Abrahale, left the camp for the first time recently for training. He earns 700 birr per month as a social worker — roughly $25 — for helping J.R.S.
Despite the boredom and tedium of life in the camp, he is reluctant to leave. “I have a family, I can’t give them up,” Abrahale, 35, says. But this situation is stressful.
“I’m fed up,” he says in front of his wife and elder daughter.
“I become hopeless waiting for this resettlement.”
Many in the camp are looking forward to getting the famous letter they call “Congra,” for “congratulations.” When they receive it, that means they are eligible to resettle in the West, and can leave soon. They dream of the day that letter arrives — and dream, too, of a better life somewhere, somehow.
All they want is the chance.
But for now, all they can do is wait.
And pray. And hope.
“I’ll work anywhere where I can find a good job,” Abrahal says.
Emeline Wuilbercq is a French journalist based in Addis Ababa where she serves as a correspondent for the African edition of Le Monde. Her work has appeared in Jeune Afrique and The Guardian, among other publications.