Tag Archives: Refugees

Scenes from a Refugee Camp

I spent two days in the refugee camps.  On the first day I got a walking tour of the camp from the young colleague who had shown such great interest in tiramisu.  He walked at a brisk pace and I managed to keep up despite the ground being muddy and strewn with large rocks and pocked with water-filled potholes.

We stopped in at the Women’s Centre which was run by International Rescue Committee.  We visited a primary school, where little faces looked up at me briefly and then back to their books.  They were probably used to strangers touring the camps. We walked past the playground:

It may look sad, but when you turned around there was this spectacular view of the mountains:

My colleague asked me if I wanted a cup of coffee and I responded enthusiastically.  People had set up small businesses along the main road; some sold beer, some packets of crisps and nuts or single application shampoo packets.  There was a cigarette vendor who sold one cigarette at a time, since no one could afford a whole pack.  We stepped into a thatched hut that served coffee.  I was the only woman and I got a few looks—not hostile or lewd—they just seemed to be noting, “Huh, a woman in the coffee hut.”  Knowing how hard women here worked, I wondered if there was a separate women’s coffee hut somewhere or if they managed without coffee.  Just the thought makes me tired.

We sat on the ubiquitous white plastic chairs, drank bittersweet coffee, and chewed on some kind of beans or nuts.  My colleague’s English was difficult to understand, so as I chewed I wondered if I would soon be seeing flying unicorns.  He talked about being an artist and a project he was working on.  I could croak out a few syllables now, but I didn’t want to be mute while traveling back to Europe in a few days so I mostly just nodded and smiled.

We returned to the CVT area.  There, we have built tukuls that serve as cool, calm oases in which people attend counseling groups.  We’ve got an art therapist from Chicago who is leading the painting of tukuls for children and creating mandalas on others.

We arrived at break time, so there was more coffee and popcorn with the whole staff of about 10 people.  They insisted I sit on the one (white plastic) chair while they stood or squatted on the ground.  I had been warned about this by others from headquarters who visited—that our staff will insist on visitors taking the chair and that it would be embarrassing.  I had just had an hour-long hike around the camp under a blazing sun.  I was twice as old as all of them.  Age is revered in some cultures and if my age or perceived status as a visitor got me the chair, I wasn’t going to say no.

After the break I was taken to a tukul where a group of 12-14 year old boys was assembled for a counseling session.  CVT’s standard counseling groups run for 10-weeks.  However, if you’ve ever had a teenaged boy in your life you know how restless they can be.  These Eritrean teenagers had picked up and walked out of their country.  They did not enjoy hanging around a refugee camp with no prospects.  As I’ve written briefly about before, many of them walk off again, toward the Sinai Desert in hopes of reaching Israel, or farther on toward Libya and the Mediterranean Sea with hopes of reaching Europe.  Some do make it, but most are kidnapped in the Sinai by Bedouin or other traffickers, or drown in the Med.

Ten-week groups are just too long—many of the boys won’t be around by the third week.  So CVT developed a three-meeting group model, and I was sitting in on the third one.  Everyone had a chair.  But first, they made me stand up and give a speech, since I was such an important person from headquarters.  Now this was a little uncomfortable.  Little did they know that I am nobody special, but I rasped out a few words anyway.

Losing My Voice

The day I was supposed to give the second half of my presentation, I awoke with no voice.  I couldn’t force out even one husky syllable.  I don’t know if I had a cold, or if it was all the smoke and chemicals, or both.  regardless, this was going to be awkward.

I wrote, “I Have Laryngitis” on a piece of paper.  Then I thought no, they might not know what that was, so I wrote another that said, “I Have Lost my Voice.”  Then I thought dang, we are always talking about giving refugees a voice to speak up for their rights.  What if they think I am making some kind of bizarre white western yuppie artistic statement?

People did give me strange looks when I showed them my sign, but what else could I do?  I slid a note over the breakfast table to Maki: “I can’t give a presentation with no voice.”  She nodded and shrugged.  Did she think I was faking it to get out of doing the second half because I had worried the first one hadn’t gone over well?

“You can go with Yonas to get your camp pass this morning,” she said.  Yonas, not his real name, is our loggie.  “Loggie” is shorthand for logistician.  I nodded and followed Yonas to the truck.

The power and the generator were both off, so the wireless router was going “BEEEP, BEEEP, BEEEP, BEEEP …” You get the picture.  It was loud and annoying and no one else seemed to notice it.

I had planned to force out some words but didn’t think I could make myself heard above the beeping.  I showed Yonas my note about having no voice and he smiled, nodded, and proceeded to talk to me very loudly.  Ethiopians are normally soft spoken.  I assumed he was trying to be heard over the beeping but he kept it up after we’d left the compound.  I’ve noticed this the other times I’ve had laryngitis; for some reason people seem to think you are hard of hearing.

We went into two camps and called on the administrators with the agency that manages them.  They don’t let just anyone into the camps, for good reason.  Refugees are vulnerable to trafficking or other forms of exploitation because they tend to be desperate for solutions to their uncertain plight.

In each office, Yonas and I sat across from the official and the two of them made small talk.  Yonas did all the talking.  I smiled and nodded deferentially to everything.  Yonas explained how I was a CVT employee who was here to observe the programs, that I had come from the US, that I was a fundraiser  who was here for a week.  The official would nod slowly at each statement and then there would be a very long pause as he or she scrutinized the forms Yonas had submitted weeks earlier.  They appeared to relish the power of being able to keep you in suspense as to whether they would grant the pass or not.  Finally, just when I was sure they would stamp “REJECTED” on my pass, they stamped “APPROVED” and that was that.

If I make it sound like Ethiopia was dreadful, that’s not my intention.  So I had a sore throat and lost my voice.  So what?  The thousands of refugees in these camps had lost their homes, their families, their peace of mind, and their hope.  I was so grateful for the opportunity to experience where we work and what we do first hand.

I can’t and wouldn’t show photos of refugees.  You know, there’s that whole thing about treating people like they’re animals in a zoo.  And the thought of posting photos of people online—people who have no Internet access and so will never even know their photo is out there—feels wrong.

Here’s some CVT signage.  It may look depressing but it’s hard to keep it looking good with the mud and rain.  The good news is that CVT has planted a lot of trees, which makes our corner of the camps welcoming, and the fencing is to protect them from goats.  The illustrations are “before” and “after” counseling.

Frankfurt to Axum

The next day, Ingrid left on the train to go home to the Netherlands, and I stayed at the hotel and sat in the breakfast bar for hours catching up on work, emails, and blog posts.  Then I caught a cab to the airport.  On the way, the cabbie and I both had a laugh at this doggie on a bike:

At the airport, I splurged and spent $1 a minute to call my mom.  Phone service was by far the most complicated, difficult aspect of going abroad.  I must have research 10 different options, and none of them were good.  In the end I paid $40 for a month of unlimited texting, $1  minute calling, and 1 GB of data with ATT.  Unfortunately, the texting didn’t work.  I would send a text and not hear back from the recipient for four days, when they would say, “Just got your text!”  There was no data in Ethiopia, let alone texting or calling.  So I let the plan drop at the end of the month.

My mother and I spoke for 10 minutes.  She’s never been much of a phone talker, and at 82, I think she still believes that international calls cost hundreds of dollars.  As I said goodbye, she started to cry.  I felt terrible, but what could I do?  I told her that the UK was a lot more dangerous than Ethiopia and hoped she would forget that by the time I got to the UK 10 days later.

Flying to Ethiopia from the global north is arduous.  There is no option but overnight flights arriving in Addis at 6:00am.  I’ve already written about all the flights and jeep rides it took to get from Europe to the refugee camps in northern Ethiopia. There were so many “Huh?” moments along the way.

On the flight from Frankfurt to Ethiopia, I shared my row with an Eritrean guy who now lives in Canada who was going back to visit his sister, who he hadn’t seen in 12 years.  I felt rude, but I smiled as I donned my sleep mask and told him I wanted to get some shut eye.  He smiled back and said, “I don’t think I will sleep all night; I am so excited.”

When the plane landed, everyone applauded.

“I didn’t get a visa before coming,” blurted out my seat mate.  “I’m sure they’ll give me one on arrival.”

I smiled but had serious doubts.  When I told Maki, our country director, this story, she groaned and put her face in her hands.  “They won’t have let him in,” she said.  “They’ll send him back.  Oh, why do people do that?  I think they believe their chances are better in person, but they’re definitely not.”

On our flight to Axum, the flight attendant offered a tray of plastic cups with clear, brown, and yellowish beverages.  I reached for the clear one and she said anxiously, “That’s water!”

“Yes, I know,” I replied.  Could she just not imagine that someone would choose water over a free coke or beer?  She came back a minute later with a tray of muffins wrapped in plastic.  When I said no thanks, she exclaimed, “Why not!?”  I said I didn’t like sweet snacks, and she looked at me like I was nuts.

Maki was seated in a different row.  I looked around and noticed the other passengers were eating their muffins with their fingers.  I have eaten with my fingers in Ethiopian restaurants many times but hadn’t realized they eat everything with their fingers.

I flipped through the inflight magazine.  The flight attendants were all as beautiful as the one in this ad.

Because of Ethiopia … what?  I had no idea what this was advertising or why these blokes were drinking out of laboratory beakers.

I assume this guy must be a famous marathon runner.

I often get passionate about packaging, especially when it involves gusseted stitched sacks.

I wasn’t going to learn Amharic on this flight, but I could pretend to try.

Here’s Ethiopian Air’s route map.

I found this sign in the bathroom puzzling.

Isn’t poop solid waste?

I was so entertained, the flight went fast and we soon landed in Axum.

Beasts of Burden

The first thing I noticed in Ethiopia, and an enduring image I’ll carry in my mind, is how hard people (and animals) toil.

I spent a lot of time being driven in trucks.  Along the side of the roads there were always streams of people walking.  If it took us an hour to get from Axum to Shire, how long did it take people to walk?  It was 90F and humid with no shade.  There were no sidewalks, just rock strewn shoulders.  People walked barefoot or in what appeared to be 99 cent flip flops or jellies. No one was carrying a water bottle or wearing sun glasses.  I’m sure they weren’t wearing sun screen.

Oh, and did I mention that they were all carrying enormous bundles of twigs, gallons of water, babies, rebar, small trees, or sacks of potatoes?  Men, women, children.  Old people, little kids.  I saw a girl who looked like she was four years old walking alone in the middle of nowhere, balancing a case or juice boxes on her head.  Did she ever wonder if this was normal, or okay?

The lucky ones had camels or donkeys whose paniers were loaded with rocks or bricks or 5 gallon water jugs.  I rarely saw anyone riding a donkey or camel; they’re reserved for transporting heavy loads and riding one probably would seem frivolous.

The Ethiopian roads are probably better than what we have in the US—maybe due to not undergoing the freezing and thawing of winter. They’re smooth and black and look like they were laid down yesterday.  And yet there is very little traffic.  No one can afford a car.  In a week there, I only ever saw one passenger sedan.  Everything else is one of four things: a commercial truck, a bus, a white NGO Toyota Land Cruiser, or a Bajaj.  These diesel powered three wheeled vehicles that taxi people around for short distances.  I believe they’re called tuk-tucks in India and cocos in Cuba.  Anyway, don’t bother looking for a taxi because there are none.  And no worries about running a red light, because there are no stop lights of any color, stop signs, or signs pointing the way to anything.

Despite the great road and light traffic, Ethiopians still manage to have a lot of accidents.  I saw four road accidents in the one-hour drive from Axum to Shire, all involving buses.  One appeared to have rolled five or six times; an ambulance was at the scene and I couldn’t imagine anyone survived without major trauma.

Back in the refugee camp, I was listening to our staff tell the group how, if they feel “heavy” or worry constantly, suffer guilt for surviving when their family did not, or have flashbacks and nightmares, those are normal reactions to the abnormal experiences they’ve lived through.  They described how talking about troubling emotions with others can help people heal.

This may seem obvious to you, but I wish someone had told me all this when I was an adolescent because, well, I wasn’t tortured but I believed I was the only one on earth who felt insecure, unpopular, and ugly.  Well maybe I was, but odds are I wasn’t.

A scrawny kid of about 15 sauntered up and started listening.  He was wearing skinny jeans and a black shirt with white lettering that said, “Life is Party.”  He was smoking—the first smoker I’d seen—although I was told later that lots of the kids on their own smoke.

There were other funny T-shirts in the crowd, likely made in China.  One said “Inmy Mind;” my favorite was “Jerry Smith World Famous Surveying Co.”  How cool is that T-shirt?

I wondered how long had it been since he’d seen his mother or father. He looked tres cool but then teenagers always do.

The speaker was now talking about CVT’s services, and making very clear that CVT does not provide any material aid or cash support.  A woman raised her hand to say she’d attended the groups and that “going to CVT does not mean you are crazy.”  The audience was encouraged to contact CVT if they “knew anyone” with the symptoms described.

Happy to Be Here

I’ve written about the rats, dust, diesel fumes, noise, and mosquitoes here in Ethiopia.

Now for the good things.  It is so great to be here.  With others I’ve been trying to raise funds for our Ethiopia program for about three years, and I am finally seeing first-hand what happens here.  It’s easy to get a bit cynical when you’re sitting at HQ.  This has swept my cynicism away.

It took a lot to get here.  I took an overnight flight from Frankfurt to Addis Ababa, the capital.  An hour later I flew north to Axum, and from there it was a one-hour drive to Shire, where CVT has an office.  I flew to Lalibela for some weekend R&R and I’ll write about that later.  On Monday morning, back in Shire, everyone piled into one of the ubiquitous white NGO trucks plastered with our logo and donor recognition—in our case, the US flag with the note, “Gift of the United States Government PRM” (Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration).

Our destination was Mai Tsebri, home of my dearly departed rat (I hope).  In Mai Tsebri, CVT has a walled compound. The trucks back in through the gate into a courtyard with a dirt floor planted with mango trees and a water cistern as big as a Humvee.  Two floors of rooms ring it—a kitchen, canteen, training room, staff quarters, HR, logistics, and the oh-so important generator shed.

Each morning the staff pile into the trucks for the drive to the refugee camps, which is about a half hour.  It’s spectacular countryside, along twisting roads through the mountains.  I had heard that the ride makes people sick, so I was relieved it didn’t happen to me.

So after eight flights in 13 days and five long, dusty drives, I was in one of the camps where we work.

And it’s great.  I am so happy to meet the staff whose names I’ve entered into online forms.

There’s a lot to write about, but for now I’ll describe the camp and the mornings’ activity.

There’s a small Ethiopian settlement called Adi Harush.  The ground is red, rocky, uneven, and dusty.  The houses are built of square cement bricks and are maybe 15 by 12 feet.  Each has a tin roof, a door, and windows on two sides.  The houses are in pretty rough shape.

Then you cross some invisible line and you’re in a refugee camp.  The houses are the same but they’re brand new, neat and tidy.  The people are the same ethnic group, but they’re Eritrean, not Ethiopian, and they speak Tigrinya instead of Amharic.

There are communal latrines (below) and water spigots, schools, an amphitheater where boys were playing basketball, a women’s center (below) where the ladies can get their hair done, watch TV, and discuss Gender Based Violence.

There’s no barbed wire fence or armed guard to keep anyone in, and that’s a problem, as you’ll learn.

Three CVT staff found a spot of shade against a house and a group of people began to assemble.  One staffer set down two stools about eight inches high, gestured for me to sit down, and sat next to me.  The other two employees began to present information on trauma and torture to about 30 men, women, and children while my stool mate interpreted for me.  We call this a sensitization—to help people understand that if they’re depressed, anxious or not sleeping, that’s normal given what they’ve been through, and CVT can help.

Almost everyone in the camp is separated from his or her family.  Some were forced into never-ending military service, kept in underground prisons, or trafficked.  There are lots of children on their own, and there are waves of suicide among them.

I had the interpreter seriously repeating everything into my ear, while two tiny boys stood directly in front of me making funny faces.  One had no pants on.  Did I laugh at them and risk looking insensitive to the crowd, or remain serious and miss the joy of flirting with small children?  I think I did all of the above.

Night of the Rat

Greetings from Mai Tsebri, Ethiopia, 25 miles from the Eritrean border—although it’s hard to know because this town isn’t on Google Maps.  I’ve been in Ethiopia for a week now, and I’m ready to get out of here.

Mainly because of the rat.

I am staying at the Center for Victims of Trauma office here (we are the Center for Victims of Torture everywhere else but for political reasons we had to tone down the name here).

I am in the guest room.  Here are some pictures:

The first night, exhausted from traveling all day, hot and sticky, my head clogged up from the chemicals they use to disinfect everything, I finally fell asleep with the ceiling fan turned on high, wafting my mosquito netting up and down.

Some time later I was awakened by the loud sound of something scrabbling its way up the drain pipe in the bathroom and then slurp! I could hear it pop out and scurry around in the dark.

The power had gone out, so I couldn’t turn on the light.  It had to be a rat because the other things that come up drain pipes, like cockroaches and snakes, would be silent.  I have experience with this from Mexico, where you didn’t know the giant cockroaches were in your room until they ran up your arm in the dark.

I wasn’t going to wait for a rat to run up my arm.  I got the first shot in the rabies series before I left home and I would have to get the rest of them if I was bitten by a rat—but where would I find the rabies series here?  It took two flights and three hours of driving to get here.

I turned my cell phone up as bright as it would go, then flashed it into all the nooks and crannies and under the bed.  I didn’t see anything.  I got back into bed and could hear it scuttling around beneath me.  I got up and blasted the phone blindly, then climbed back into bed and fell asleep with the phone clutched in my hand.

Right now I am in a training room furnished with red and green upholstered hotel chairs.  Our master’s-degree-level Ethiopian counselors are training 17 Eritrean counselors who work for Norwegian Refugee Council in how to recognize the symptoms of torture and trauma and what to do about them.  One of the counselors has a small child on her lap and another has a baby strapped to her back.

I did a fundraising training with our employees yesterday. Part II was supposed to be today, but I’ve completely lost my voice.  I don’t have a cold, so it must be the diesel fumes and dust and chemicals.

“Ferenji, ferenji!” come the high calls of children as I walk by.  “White person, white person!”  I pass a woman with a small daughter; the mother pulls her daughter close and says in a hushed warning tone, “Ferenji,” like I’m a monster.  Our country director, who is Japanese, hears “China, China!”, which she doesn’t appreciate.  Sometimes they call me China too.  I guess we all look alike.

In the morning, I thought maybe I had imagined the rat.  Maybe I was just being dramatic.  When I told the country director she said phlegmatically, “Yes, there are rats here.  I hate them.”

Our Kenyan psychotherapist, who has the room next to mine informed me that he’s got traps set.

“Oh great,” I said with a laugh, “That probably drives them into my room!”

I put a plate over the drain and placed a heavy rock on top of it.

There was no rat that night, although I was wearing ear plugs to blur out the sound of drumming and singing and ululating that went on for hours somewhere nearby, so maybe I just didn’t hear the little bastard.

Third night: the rat was back.  It’s not like the room was well sealed.  Then I heard a terrifying squealing from next door.  I choose to believe it was my rat.  Game over, rat!

No Way Out

This is a series of posts about Belize and Guatemala that starts here.

Mike’s Place is a tourist complex where we would go kayaking or canoeing—it wasn’t  clear—in caves. Mike’s also featured “zip lining, hiking/swimming/rock climbing, food/drink/picnic/BBQ, and Wifi.”

Wifi, in case you wanted to watch a movie set in a jungle after hiking through a jungle.

Mike’s had been founded by a Canadian guy named Mike.  Here is a picture of him when he arrived in Belize.

Mike no longer looked like this.  He had probably partaken of a lot more food/drink/picnic/BBQ than hiking/swimming/rock climbing.  But never mind, he had a beautiful Belizean wife about 30 years younger than him.  She did the cooking and serving, and she seemed to adore Mike.

After 30 minutes of milling about, discussing vital questions such as “Should I bring a water bottle into the cave?” “Are there bats in the cave?” “Is there a place to go to the bathroom in the cave?” Jose our guide finally corralled us at the water’s edge and gave us a five-minute background on the history, geology, and safety concerns of canoeing in caves.

I live in Minnesota so I have done a lot of canoeing on rivers, in lakes, and in wilderness areas near the Canadian border.  I know how to steer; it’s really simple.  But I had no idea what to expect of canoeing in a cave. I had questions too, but I kept my mouth shut in hopes we would get going sooner and just find out once we were in inside what was involved. Would the water be calm or would there be currents?  How deep would it be?

These questions were not answered on the Wilderness Adventure website, and that’s okay—I don’t want to know everything in advance or it wouldn’t have been an adventure. When Mark and I had talked on the phone he hadn’t known anything about the canoeing either, since he had never been to Belize.  The packing list had recommended water gear as though it would be a serious canoe trip, and I had jettisoned mine after moving twice in three months the previous year.  I had gone shopping for water shoes and water-repellant clothes, none of which are cheap or findable in second-hand stores.  I browsed the water shoes and dropped them like they were red hot when I saw the price tags.  In the end, I brought some cheap Sketchers sandals I found at TJ Maxx.  Worst case scenario, I would throw them away if this canoe adventure turned out to be rigorous.

It was extremely tame.  They made us wear life jackets and helmets—because it was a cave with some low hanging outcrops—but we never paddled faster than two miles per hour.

Here is the cave entrance and the canoes.

As we paddled into the silent cave, the hooting of a barn owl that sat in a niche high above the entrance echoed in the darkness, which closed on us as soon as we were a few meters in.

A second guide, Alex, had been called in from his Sunday off because Mike hadn’t been expecting our group.  We drifted along at a leisurely pace, looking at the formations and ancient pots left by the Maya (maybe).  We paddled about a mile into the interior, and I asked Alex about his life.

He was 25 and from El Salvador, from whence his family had fled during the civil war.  He lived with his mother; his father had gone north to California, where he had a successful business.  Alex’s siblings had followed his father one by one and wanted him to join them.  He hadn’t seen his father in over 20 years.  He had no future in Belize.  But he was the youngest child, and his mother wanted to stay in Belize.

“Last month,” he said, “My father got me a visa and I was prepared to go.  But I just couldn’t leave my mother.”

I groaned internally.  Donald Trump had just issued a decree ordering the number of refugees admitted to the US in 2017 be cut in half.  Alex had probably missed his last chance.