A Somali mother offers her baby a drink as they wait in a Jesuit Refugee Service camp for a country to take them away from the war and strife.


A Somali mother offers her baby a drink as they wait in a Jesuit Refugee Service camp for a country to take them away from the war and strife.

September 28, 2015

Fifty-one year old Somali refugee Abdi Mahdi is one of 25 students taking an English class offered by the Jesuit Refugee Service in the Kobe refugee camp.

He's also one of nearly 42,000 refugees in this particular camp located about three kms from the border between Ethiopia and Somalia.

Mahdi is included in the more than 200,000 Somalis gathered in five refugee camps around the tiny Ethiopian town of Dollo Ado, one of 255,000 Somali refugees living in Ethiopia, one of 1.1 million Somali refugees scattered through the world, one of 2.3 million Somalis driven from their homes by the terror group Al-Shabaab.

He's also one of 14.9 million refugees in Africa and one of 59.5 million refugees, asylum seekers and displaced people worldwide.

It's hard not to look at Abdi and read a grim script for the rest of the 21st century. It's hard not to imagine that the global population of refugees, almost as large as the population of the United Kingdom, will not shape this century.


This vast, desperate host spread through the world is knocking at the doors of Canada, the United States, Europe and every other safe, stable country asking for nothing extraordinary – just the opportunity to resume their interrupted, suspended, frozen lives.

It's a knock that frankly scares us.

Europe quakes at every poor Eritrean or Somali or Syrian or Iraqi that lands in Greece or Italy, or sets out for the European heartland through Hungary and Austria, or dashes through the Channel Tunnel connecting France and Great Britain.

Already since the beginning of the year, close to 400,000 migrants have reached the European Union. More than 2,500 others died trying to make the same trip during the same time period according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

Every day, the global number of refugees and people displaced by war or famine grows by 42,500. That number has almost quadrupled in five years. More than half are children.

At the Kobe refugee camp, there's no chance Abdi is going to actually learn to converse in English. In the best of circumstances, learning a language above the age of 50 is an uphill climb. Now imagine you grew up in a nomadic culture, driving your family's herds from pasture to pasture with the changing seasons.

Imagine you never went to school for any significant period of time and never acquired the skills or habits of literacy in your first language. A second language, completely unrelated to your first, is going to be tough.

Abdi has three realistic hopes for this class in the world's dominant language. One is that he learns to phonetically master the Roman alphabet. This would help him to read signs and instructions when his own language is written in the script. It would help him fill out forms if he ever had a chance to apply for resettlement in another country.

Second, he hopes to be an example to his nine children and two wives. He knows their future lies in a world vastly different from the one he grew up in.

Third, he would rather be a part of the good side of life in the camp – the side that maintains hope and stays close to the Jesuit Refugee Service.


There is a bad side to the refugee camp. After 6 p.m. all aid agencies – from the Ikea Foundation to Doctors Without Borders to the International Committee of the Red Cross, dozens of them – are sent out of the front gates to their compounds.

Ethiopian police take their place and patrol the dusty tracks between rows of identical tin shacks.

The refugee camps around Dollo Ado have been there almost five years. In that time, the NGOs, under the watchful eye of the Ethiopian government, have turned them into model camps with drinkable water, regular garbage pick-up, recreation facilities, schools.

As I walked from one program to another inside the JRS sections of the Kobe and Melkadida camps, chatting with teachers, social workers, community organizers, I peered toward the rows of one-room houses.

I glimpsed the market street, saw people trudging through the camp, slipping in and out of their front doors where clumps of children were gathered.

The Melkadida camp houses 45,000 people, about the population of North Bay, Ont. However, nobody would build a city in the middle of the desert, let alone five of them. And nobody would choose to live in these hot, dry, dusty places.

They are one-industry towns in which the NGOs are the only employers and almost all the employees arrive on the United Nations Humanitarian Air Service's Bombardier Dash 8.

The citizenry – most of them women and children – is almost uniformly idle and bereaved. They are there because of famine and terrorism. They mourn their missing children, husbands, mothers, fathers, homes, flocks and ways of life.

As they sit in their camps, most of them realize that everything they ever knew has disappeared from under them.

Young people who play soccer, volleyball and foosball, others who attend classes to learn a trade or skill, peer counsellors who talk through family and community issues of addiction, abuse and depression – all display gusto, seriousness and dedication.

Women and girls in the refugee camp learn a new skill that will not only benefit them in their new country but also ease the boredom.


Women and girls in the refugee camp learn a new skill that will not only benefit them in their new country but also ease the boredom.

The alternative is sitting in a tin shack staring at a dirt floor from sunrise to sunset.

I'm not surprised when they greet my camera with both fascination and fear. Although the big telephoto lens reminds many of a gun, they know I'm there to peer into their lives. They're not anxious to be the subject of another foreigner's curiosity, even though every new face they encounter offers a break from the monotony of camp life.

The children want to see themselves in the screen on the back of my camera. Adults turn away. They want to see themselves somewhere else, living some other life.

Some men have gone into business selling khat or miraa, a natural, amphetamine-like drug in the form of the leaves of the khat bush. Chewing the leaves creates a heightened sense of awareness and excitement, along with insomnia and loss of appetite. Prolonged use can cause hallucinations. It's not highly addictive and has been a part of social culture in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula since before Ethiopians discovered coffee around the 14th century. (They noticed goats became perkier after eating those beans.)

In the context of the camps, however, khat is pernicious. For men with nothing to do all day but chew khat and sometimes drink alcohol, khat fuels a sense of frustration that leads to beatings of wives and children, and fights with other men.

It also leads to debts and blackmail.

This camp is placed in a stretch of semi-arid desert that never did support more than a few families and their goats and camels. The hot wind picks up the sand and throws it in your face.

The first night I rolled over on my mosquito net and woke up covered with red bites.

Showers were not always possible in the morning because, as miraculous as the camp water system is, it never works all day long. In the current drought, it fails more often than it works.

I found myself washing out of a bucket containing less than a litre of water and was glad I brought a family-size packet of Wet Ones.


If these are the deprivations of a visiting journalist who was being pampered and guided by an NGO, imagine living in a tin shack, carrying water in jerry cans, cooking outside on a fire built from the thorny branches of acacia bushes, day after day, for years.

As I walked, or was driven in the Toyota Land Rover, through the camp, I was constantly aware of the privilege I had been given to witness these lives. I was allowed to see the love of these people for their children and for their own lives. And their unexpected hope.

The Jesuit Refugee Services' psychosocial counselling teams are one of the main sources of stability in this context. In group discussions and individual peer counselling under the direction of a professional social worker, the JRS confronts addiction and abuse. But the teams also deal with the despair and frustration behind the addiction.

Members of the counselling teams include volunteers and "incentive workers" who collect a small, part-time wage and receive training. More important than the money is the sense of purpose and self-esteem incentive workers can claim.

Most of the JRS programs concentrate on youth in the camps where the population is overwhelmingly young.

Abdi with his two wives and nine children is typical. There are plenty of men his age with three and four wives. Families sprawl into dozens of children. Given the additional medical care inside the camps, child mortality is low and these traditional family structures are even larger than they would be in Somalia.

In each of the two Dollo Ado refugee camps where JRS is present, the Catholic agency serves between 12,000 and 15,000 refugees each year.

The JRS's first project when they arrived at the Melkedida and Kobe camps was to build schools, which they turned over to Ethiopian authorities to run. They followed up with building and running multipurpose community halls.

These halls have become home to an all-day, every-day stream of barefoot, pick-up soccer games. JRS volleyball nets and basketball hoops also get nearly constant use. A pavilion with foosball, ping-pong and pool tables attracts kids all day, particularly in the summer months.

The JRS keeps young people connected to a wider world with an Internet café.

Where the JRS's engagement with young refugees is most visible and most hopeful is in the vocational classes it runs – a class covering the basics of plumbing, another on fashion design and tailoring, another dedicated to hairdressing and esthetics, and a barbering class.

Each of these is brimming with young people who don't want to waste their summer vacations, young mothers trying to further their education while caring for their families, young men trying to do a little better than the crowd hanging about on the camp's market street.

Ethiopian law forbids refugees from any legal form of employment. In this tightly controlled society, illegal employment is not an option. Refugees need police authorization just to visit another camp. No permission is granted to leave the camp and apply for jobs in a country with 30 per cent unemployment.

From a distance, it might seem odd that the Jesuit Refugee Service is one of the most popular and respected NGOs among a refugee population that is 100-per-cent Muslim. For newly-appointed Ethiopia country director Father Atakelt Tesfay, the trust they're shown is a sign the agency is doing what it's supposed to be doing.

"Our mission is to accompany them," he said. "In a way, to give them life."

The JRS is not in the business of proselytizing. Many of its employees in Dollo Ado are themselves Muslim. But the JRS preaches the Gospel by demonstrating how Christ would respond to refugees, Atakelt said.

"For Christ, it's not the Christianity but it is the humanity," he said. "The concern of Christ is for humanity, justice, peace."


The JRS is not Christian by accident and not Catholic just by the way, said JRS East Africa director Father Endashaw Debrework.

"Our difference lies in our uniqueness, based on the Gospel and the social teaching of the Church – and then our spirituality as well, the Ignatian spirituality which nurtures our mission, our work."

Torn from her homeland, this lonely girl still trods a brave path towards life in a new country.


Torn from her homeland, this lonely girl still trods a brave path towards life in a new country.

"In this entire saga of refugees, if there is no hope there is no life," Endashaw said. "So everybody struggles to make sure that tomorrow will be better."

From the crest of one of the rugged hills overlooking the Kobe refugee camp, it's difficult to see hope, Gospel values and better tomorrows. The desert-bound rows of shacks are entirely dependent on daily support from a distant world that is quickly losing interest.

These Somalis, like millions of refugees in Africa and the Middle East, confined in their camps, waiting for something to happen, were briefly in the news when they were discovered starving as they fled Al Shabaab militants in 2011. These are the true victims of perverted, violent religious sentiment.

But the complexities of their story are difficult to grasp and harder to get across in a world that boils down its news to 12-second video clips, five-word headlines and screenshots posted on Facebook and Instagram.

The global refugee population is being driven by forces more intractable than religious intolerance, bad political choices, collapsing regimes and border flare-ups between unstable countries. The Earth's climate is also creating refugees and putting them in situations not easily solved, said Father Peter Balleis, JRS international director.

"The Darfur conflict is also about water, you know," said the Dutch Jesuit. "If the Sahara progresses to the South, people move more towards the Darfur mountains where there is more water. The environmental context and the economic poverty is there."

The world's biggest refugee crisis – the four million people on the run from the Syrian Arab Republic and 7.4 million forced from their homes inside the country – also had a clear, identifiable environmental trigger.

Syria endured a four-year drought leading up to the Arab Spring. Crops failed and nearly a third of Syria's 10 million rural inhabitants were reduced to extreme poverty. Damascus and other cities filled up with ex-farmers and herders who had lost everything.

When a small protest began in Damascus in the spring of 2011, the situation quickly snowballed and the Assad regime reacted with force to a situation it could not control.


For the most part, the world's growing refugee problems are concentrated along two bands where exploding population, rapid urbanization and shifting climate are putting additional pressures on feeble governments with no legitimate, popular mandate.

One band begins in the Middle East, in Gaza, and runs through Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad, Tehran and on to Kabul and the Pashtun territories of Pakistan. The other band skips along the southern edge of the Sahara, the region known as the Sahel, from Mauritania through Mali, Niger, Chad, Sudan and down into Somalia.

"It's also a fact, and we need to talk openly about it, these are predominantly Islamic countries," said Balleis. "There is a dimension of how religion plays a role in politics."

Each new refugee crisis represents a new long-term situation. Refugees remain refugees an average of 17 years. When the JRS walks into a refugee camp or sets up a centre for urban refugees in a city flooded with new arrivals, they assume they will be there 15 to 20 years.

"These situations don't just go away so easily, unless you attend to it," said Balleis. "The question is how to sustain our work."


Balleis understands people's wandering attention to this crisis. Nobody can live on a diet of other people's agony day after day in a complex, changing world.

"Do we want to see, every day, the fighting scenes from Syria? From Aleppo?" he asks. "On the other hand, it's sad that the world is not more aware that Aleppo is in a terrible state."

Balleis does not believe the refugee problem is unsolvable or that refugees will define the 21st century. He sees the problem solved daily on an individual level, little by little, through relationships formed between refugees and JRS staff.

"Every little action or deed can be an element to contribute to some solution," he said. "People do not forget easily who helped them. . . . Maybe those people being helped today might be the best bridges to the Middle East tomorrow, and feed something back into the Middle East that they learned from our societies."

There's no telling what will happen to Abdi Mahdi, his two wives and his nine children. He probably won't learn English. But he may well remember being a part of something. Mahdi will have faced the future, even in the bleak situation of the refugee camp, and his wives and his children will have watched him bravely look forward.

He will not forget what he received in friendship. Neither should we.