(Erikson, a refugee social worker, leading the way. I will buy a camel one day.)
Life at Shimelba refugee camp has been interesting thus far and I am learning a lot. The name “Shimelba” is a result of the smashing together of two words: “name” and “there is no,” or “the place with no name.” At first I found this to be a bit harsh and it didn’t seem nearly as bad as had been described to me by former Shimelba refugees now living in the DC area. It seemed like any other Ethiopian town- there are small shops set up, a market area, cafes for drinkingtea/coffee, DSTV houses that show soccer games and movies, a stadium for actually playing soccer, restaurants for eating tasty lamb with injera, and even a nice school. In fact, I even found it nicer than most Ethiopian towns in some ways- water is provided by the IRC and there is an abundant flow (not what I was expecting from a refugee camp). Food is distributed monthly by the UN, so all the children appear to be healthy. There are ceiling fans, which I don’t think I have ever seen in this country. And the whole scene is set to a backdrop of gentle rolling hills. The IRC offices/ the housing where we live is set on top of a hill overlooking the entire camp and it is tempting to look out over everything and think that it is all simply picturesque. Then I stayed here for a month.
(A favorite evening hangout overlooking Shimelba)
It’s not just the weather, though it tends to bear the brunt of the blame. It really is amazingly hot. It feels like the sun has become your personal adversary, out to slay you whenever you attempt the smallest of tasks. People say that this is the “cool” season, but they are delirious and don’t know what they are talking about. I don’t want to think about what the hot season is like. The air here is so still, making the heat omnipresent and constant. The heat becomes trapped in things, like your bed sheets or your clothes, giving the impression that you are being baked in an oven. The only relief is at night if the rains come, bringing with it a breeze and magnificent lightening storms. However, more often than not, the rains haven’t been coming as expected, which is a cause for concern.
The real reason people take issue with Shimelba is because it is an in-between place. It isn’t necessary to give these types of places a name. You don’t think you’ll be there long enough to warrant a name. No one wants to be here, but they can’t go back where they came from and they don’t yet have permission to go forward. Everyone is waiting for permission for something: to complete their education or start a business or find a job that would support them and their families. And while they are waiting, a lot of time is passing. Some have been waiting here for as long as 7 years and you can hear a tone of futility in their voices as they talk about the ineffectiveness of the system they are trapped in. The Ethiopian government just opened a limited number of positions for Eritrean refugees to attend university, but its not enough. They also just began allowing the refugees to move to urban cities if they can demonstrate that they have sufficient support from family and friends, but few have that kind of support. In 2008, the UN started resettling refugees from Shimelba, mostly to the US, but the process is slow and most are still just waiting.
For the past month, I’ve been teaching Cultural Orientation courses to refugees who are in the waiting stage before resettling to the US. The course lasts for two weeks, with one group meeting in the morning and another in the afternoon. Our second round of classes has just finished and they’ve been a lot of fun. In total, around 200 refugees participated and hopefully they are now a bit more prepared for what is to come. I’ve also been working on revising the Cultural Orientation curriculum, which has been a bit challenging with minimal access to electricity and no internet, but it’s coming together. And finally, I’ve been drafting budget and funding proposals to try and get some money directed to the refugees that are resettling. It’s hard to get funding for projects like this because donors tend to be more focused on hot issues, like the unaccompanied minors who are flocking to Ethiopia from Eritrea or the massive drought that is taking place in the Somali region. Those who are resettling don’t have imminent needs and thus much less funding is given. However, if refugees have realistic expectations about what life will be like once they arrive in the US, the transition process is at least a bit smoother and it can make a big difference in their first few years in the States. Or at least that is the hope. Some of the students from the first class have already flown to the United States (they really enjoyed the fact that they would get there before me), so I’m hoping to follow-up with them in a few months to see if the course proved helpful.
Some highlights of my Shimelba experience include:
-getting to know the refugee social workers. These are refugees employed by the IRC to implement the different programs. I mostly worked with social workers from the Youth and Livelihood program and they are great. Two of them helped me by translating for the entire month, which was a huge task. Gebar and Dawit are incredibly bright, strong guys and have ridiculous, unbelievable stories. We grab tea after most classes and I have gained so much insight and perspective from them. Other social workers were kind to invite me to hang out with their families, drink coffee, and talk for hours… doing what those in Shimelba do best.
-making new friends. Before leaving DC, one of the refugees from Shimelba who resettled to DC and received his assistance from our office told me that I HAD to find his best friend who was still in Shimelba. And so I did. Jossy became a great friend and loyal ally. He runs a small shop in the camp and would sometimes venture to the world outside of Shimelba (the great beyond) and bring back luxury items such as bananas and candy. I also became great friends with the IRC staff, who are smart, dedicated, and adventurous.
-finding the secret garden. One day, a favorite social worker of mine, Tukku, was waiting for me as soon as class got out and told me that we had to go somewhere immediately. Naturally, I followed him. We ended up in the secret garden of Shimelba, a wonderful place with trees and vines and flowers and green things and life. The mastermind behind it all is a refugee named Bekele who has the greenest thumb imaginable. A couple years ago, some Canadians were offering gardening classes to refugees (just repeating what I’m told. No idea why Canadians felt the need to teach farmers how to grow things, but there you have it) and this guy took to it like a champ. He fashioned benched and tables out of dirt bricks, allowing other refugees to come and find relief from the heat. For the guests’ reading pleasure, he has Canadian gardening magazines available to peruse. He also had 3 caged parrots and was growing sweet potatoes, a rare and tasty commodity. It was an entirely bizarre experience to have in the middle of a desert, but I couldn’t stay away after that.
-the 4th of July. This came at a crucial time. About halfway through my time in Shimelba, we hadn’t had cell phone service/ electricity/ rain for weeks, it was hot, my first group of students (who were awesome) had completed the course and the second group just didn’t seem as awesome yet (no worries- we warmed to each other in no time)…. Thus, it was imperative to do something to boost moral. I sent my computer with a driver going to town, had him charge it, and then arranged a movie night in order to celebrate. The IRC staff was just as doldrums-y as I was, so we all really got into it. Mattresses were dragged out onto the porch, popcorn was popped, and we chose a classic American film- The Shawshank Redemption. This was a great hit with the staff, largely due to a deep love in this country for Morgan Freeman. Following July 4th, Shimelba became known as ‘Shimelbashank’. I feel like the staff really identified with the film.
-discovering cactus fruit. A double-edged sword, I’ll tell you that much. A tasty, delicious and abundant fruit, akin to the passion fruit, but covered with skin-piercing thorns. Though that’s not the worst of it. When first introduced to the fruit, many people I talked to said that they didn’t eat it because it was known to cause constipation. This did not seem like an entirely negative thing to me, given some extenuating circumstances. Thus, I purchased a kilo of the tasty delights and commenced to eat them for breakfast because the other option was usually shredded, spicy injera, which is unacceptable in the morning and usually the cause of my extenuating circumstances. Around this same time, I began feel rather ill. I would wake up feeling fine, but usually an hour into my first class I would break out into a sweat, starthaving stomach cramps, and get light-headed. After an hour or so, I’d be fine again. I attributed it to dehydration and commenced an intense water-drinking regime. In the meantime, my extenuating circumstances were not improving and I was losing faith in the cactus fruit. My days continued in this terrible cycle until one day my friend said that she was surprised that I didn’t get sick after I ate the cactus fruit on an empty stomach. When I asked her why she would wait so long to say something, she just said she thought everyone knew that cactus fruit should only be eaten after other food. Lesson learned.
-Witnessing a Kunama wedding. The Kunama people make up a large population of Shimelba and they have a fascinating culture. They are known for being an extremely tight-knit community and, when asked if they would like to sign up for resettlement, the elders said sure… if they could all be resettled to the same place and if they would be allowed to take their camels, donkeys, and goats. Needless to say, most of them did not sign up for resettlement, preferring to stay together and with their livestock. Anyway, one day some friends and I were heading to hang out in the secret garden and along the way we ran into a Kunama wedding procession. It was out of control. I’ll post a video someday.
(The wedding procession and with friends Lemlem, Kidist, and Alem after the bride and groom passed by)
-Renewing my love of sports. The canteen on the IRC compound, where the staff eats meals, is equipped with satellite television. Except for the few times I was able to gain control of the remote, if we had electricity we were watching either sporting events or music videos. Good news is, I am now caught up on all the songs the kids are listening to these days. The best part though, was the community that arose around the sports. We first got into Wimbledon and did our best to mimic the moves of our favorite players. If the electricity went out, we took our newly acquired skills to the Ping-Pong table and started fierce competitions. When anyone made a particularly good shot we would yell “NADAL!!!!!” or “SHARAPOVA!!!!,” the camp favorites. Needless to say, we were rather devastated when they both lost…
After Wimbledon, we became rather obsessed with the Women’s World Cup and I’ll be the first to admit that I would tolerate nothing but single-minded support for team USA. Some tried to cheer for Brazil, France, Sweden, the UK. Others expressed sympathy for Japan. I would have none of it. Before the games, IRC staff and any visitors were required to learn at least the key sections of the Star Spangled Banner and sing along. Tragically, the electricity went out 33 minutes into the final and we were left not knowing the result. Perhaps this was for the best. The next day was rough.
So that’s probably enough for now… sorry about the lack of posting. Internet was hard to come by, so I lost some motivation. However, I’m back in Addis now (most of this post was written last week), wrapping up some final reporting. Heading back to the Finote in a few days to catch up with everyone, which I’m real happy about. Hope all is well!