AKRON, Pa. -- When MCC representative Dan Leonard visited Dollo Ado refugee camp in late December, he was struck by the reality that the 150,000 Somali refugees who found safety and food in Ethiopia were not going home any time soon.
Somali refugees have been streaming out of their country in large numbers since last summer to escape famine and political instability, commonly attributed to a weak government and the Islamist militant group, al Shabaab, which refuses to allow humanitarian assistance in southern Somalia.
Somalis are finding refuge in neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia, which also are struggling with their own drought and rising food prices. Hunger and malnutrition are growing problems in sections of both host countries.
Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) has committed $5.5 million to date in response to the drought and food crisis that has been gradually growing in East Africa since 2010 as two poor rainy seasons left subsistence farmers and pastoralists with little food, livestock or money.
Some MCC-supported projects are based on long-term strengthening of access to food and water as well as emergency food-for-work projects and food assistance. Other projects are focused on the needs of large refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia, which in spite of their temporary purpose, could become home to people for years to come.
In Dollo Ado, located on the southeastern tip of Ethiopia, Leonard said, the refugees “can’t go back to Somalia, not just because they have no livestock or land, but because of the violence and instability. At this point, they can’t leave the camps for other cities in Ethiopia, either.”
“I fear for them,” said Leonard, who with his spouse Karin Kliewer, also an MCC representative, live in Addis Abada, the capital of Ethiopia. “Donor money will dry up when this is off the headlines, but the need is not going away.” Kliewer and Leonard are from Winnipeg, Man.
With $1.1 million, MCC currently is working through Lutheran World Federation (LWF) – a like-minded organization already operating in the camp -- to respond to needs for water, sanitation and skills training. Environmental needs of the host community also are being addressed.
Increasing numbers of refugees require a steady supply of water. MCC funding purchases supplies needed to pump, hold and deliver well water for about 70,000 people. In addition, MCC is supporting creation of latrines and education about sanitation.
Skills training for youth – 80 percent of the refugees are under 18 years old, according to LWF –is important because most of them were pastoralists. They know how to graze cattle for a living, but have not gone to school, nor do they have other marketable skills.
“Through LWF, we are supporting skills training in a variety of areas, such as brick making, tailoring and woodworking,” Leonard said. “Through livelihood training we hope to increase food security for these refugees and prepare them for a new life outside of the camps.”
In addition, poultry production and vegetable gardening projects will be established to help reduce malnutrition. Food rations only contain wheat, pulse (legumes), vegetable oil, salt and sugar.
The influx of refugees stresses the natural resources of the arid Dollo Ado area, especially trees, because refugees cut trees for firewood. To help protect the area, thereby reducing potential conflict between refugees and the hosts, MCC is supporting the planting of 60,000 trees, adapted for arid conditions. In addition, MCC is providing energy-saving stoves that burn more slowly than open-air fires, reducing the number of trees needed for firewood.
Even as MCC responds to these urgent needs in Dollo Ado and other parts of southern Ethiopia, MCC also continues to work toward the long-term goal of food security in the drought-prone area of Boricha. MCC has worked there with the Relief and Development Association (RDA) of the Meserete Kristos Church, a member of Mennonite World Conference, for nine years.
Though drought is a significant problem when it comes to growing food and raising livestock, the lack of rain is not the only cause of hunger in Boricha and other areas. In spite of the drought, plenty of food is available, Leonard said, but people do not have the resources to trade for or to buy it.
In Boricha, MCC and RDA have been trying to build the capacity of the community to grow more food than they need to eat during the good years. To have enough food to sell, reducing erosion and increasing soil fertility are vital.
“These methods have resulted in increased crop yields which have increased access for communities to consume food they grow, as well as to sell more food, increasing their ability to purchase food in hunger seasons,” Leonard said.
Another way MCC and RDA build financial capacity is to offer food-for-work or cash-for-work programs during the predictable hunger season that people in Boricha have each year as they wait for fall crops to mature. By providing this financial safety net, the organizations are helping people to improve the public infrastructure of their own communities and protect their personal assets and resources.
Leonard said he is “extremely confident” that these programs are improving life for some people in Boricha. “Preliminary findings are that, in comparison to previous years, the safety net provided by MCC through RDA has reduced the impact of the failure of the two consecutive failed rainy seasons in this area.”
Leonard saw other signs of hope, even in Dollo Ado, where many people have arrived traumatized and vulnerable.
“When you travel through the camp you don’t just see pain. You see children playing soccer and families laughing. Many people traveled with neighbors from Somalia and so you see genuine community and old friends.
“And when you see the smile on the face of a young girl getting water at water points that you are supporting and she tells you that one of the hardest things she is facing is the adjustment to new food, you can’t help but smile in return.
“I do truly hope that the hardest thing she faces in this camp is tasteless food,” Leonard said. “These young women have a hard life, but they can also be saints among us.”