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Somali refugee wins US State Department award for courage

News Stories, 31 January 2008

© UNHCR/A.Wordley
Farhiyo Ibrahim Farah (right) and a friend in Dadaab.

DADAAB, Kenya, January 30 (UNHCR) A young Somali refugee has been honoured with a prestigious United States government award for her courageous work in fighting for the rights of women and girls in a Kenyan refugee camp.

Farhiyo Ibrahim Farah is one of 10 recipients of this year's International Women of Courage Award. The 25-year-old is recognized for her work in Dadaab refugee camp, where she promotes an end to forced marriages and female genital mutilation, better treatment for rape victims and more education for Somali girls in her highly conservative and patriarchal society.

"I am more than happy. My expectation was less than this," said Farah, who will collect the award at a Washington D.C. ceremony in March. The annual courage award was established last year by US Secretary Of State Condoleezza Rice to recognize women around the world who have shown exceptional courage and leadership in advocating for women's rights and advancement.

The only African winner among this year's honorees has faced strong opposition from members of her community to her promotion of female rights in Dadaab, which is located close to the border with Somalia and houses some 170,000 mainly Somali refugees.

Dadaab's isolation in the arid north-east means exposure to the outside world is extremely limited and life in the camps is especially harsh for women, who have traditionally played a subordinate role to men in conservative Somali society.

But Farah doggedly carries on with her advocacy in the face of ostracism, buoyed, she said, by the dictum: "Whatever happens in life, one has to survive and life has to continue."

She believes that her community should be supporting rather than stigmatizing rape victims, single mothers, divorcees and widows. "Once a girl has a child out of wedlock the mother is hated by her parents, rejected by the community and thrown out of the house," Farah noted.

Due to travel restrictions imposed on refugees by the Kenyan government, Dadaab is the only world Farah knows. This makes her views on female empowerment and her willingness to air them all the more remarkable.

"Women have no say in decision-making, but I want to break the silence. I don't want the rights of girls to be dominated," said Farah, who in 2005 attended an emerging leadership programme in the western Kenyan town of Naivasha. It was the first time she had been allowed out of the camps.

Farah says she developed her ideas on female empowerment and the rights of women after her mother sent her to primary school in Dadaab, despite ridicule and criticism from members of the community. At the time boys outnumbered girls by 50 to one in the camp schools.

She skipped secondary school so that she could work for international non-governmental organization, CARE. Farah says people abused her and threw stones when she disseminated information about reproductive health. "I didn't care because I knew I had an important message for the community," she said.

But her most dangerous role has been as a campaigner for the elimination of female genital mutilation, which is widely practised in Somalia and other parts of Africa despite the grave health risks. Farah convinced her mother to spare her youngest sister the same pain and trauma that she herself underwent. Uncircumcised girls in the camps are targeted by the community.

Stephen Gacuchi, who worked closely with Farah at CARE, said he was impressed by her ability "to balance so many public roles, embrace causes and fight cultural battles, while also working as a social worker, peacemaker and counsellor." He added that she deserved the courage award "for being such a beacon of hope for Dadaab youth, Muslim girls and women."

Farah believes this recognition from the State Department will help her cause. "This is a good start to my mission and for African women, particularly refugee women and girls. I have a lot to share with the world," she said.




UNHCR country pages

Flood Airdrop in Kenya

Over the weekend, UNHCR with the help of the US military began an emergency airdrop of some 200 tonnes of relief supplies for thousands of refugees badly hit by massive flooding in the Dadaab refugee camps in northern Kenya.

In a spectacular sight, 16 tonnes of plastic sheeting, mosquito nets, tents and blankets, were dropped on each run from the C-130 transport plane onto a site cleared of animals and people. Refugees loaded the supplies on trucks to take to the camps.

Dadaab, a three-camp complex hosting some 160,000 refugees, mainly from Somalia, has been cut off from the world for a month by heavy rains that washed away the road connecting the remote camps to the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. Air transport is the only way to get supplies into the camps.

UNHCR has moved 7,000 refugees from Ifo camp, worst affected by the flooding, to Hagadera camp, some 20 km away. A further 7,000 refugees have been moved to higher ground at a new site, called Ifo 2.

Posted in December 2006

Flood Airdrop in Kenya

New Arrivals in Yemen

During one six-day period at the end of March, more than 1,100 Somalis and Ethiopians arrived on the shores of Yemen after crossing the Gulf of Aden on smuggler's boats from Bosaso, Somalia. At least 28 people died during these recent voyages – from asphyxiation, beating or drowning – and many were badly injured by the smugglers. Others suffered skin problems as a result of prolonged contact with sea water, human waste, diesel oil and other chemicals.

During a recent visit to Yemen, UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Erika Feller pledged to further raise the profile of the situation, to appeal for additional funding and international action to help Yemen, and to develop projects that will improve the living conditions and self sufficiency of the refugees in Yemen.

Since January 2006, Yemen has received nearly 30,000 people from Somalia, Ethiopia and other places, while more than 500 people have died during the sea crossing and at least 300 remain missing. UNHCR provides assistance, care and housing to more than 100,000 refugees already in Yemen.

New Arrivals in Yemen

The Gulf of Aden: Sharp Rise in Crossings and Deaths

The number of people arriving on the coast of Yemen after being smuggled across the treacherous Gulf of Aden from the Horn of Africa has more than doubled this year. So far this year, more than 18,000 people have arrived in Yemen across the Gulf of Aden, and nearly 400 have died attempting the journey.

This surge in arrivals is largely due to the continuing conflict in Somalia and the use of new smuggling routes from Somalia to Yemen and across the Red Sea from Djibouti. Many of the new arrivals also tell of crop losses due to drought, which forced them to leave home. This photo set focuses on those people leaving from Djibouti.

UNHCR has been calling for increased action to save lives in the Gulf of Aden and other waters. We have stepped up our work in Yemen under a US$17 million operation that includes extra staff, provision of additional shelter and assistance, and protection for refugees and internally displaced people.

Posted on 20 May 2008

The Gulf of Aden: Sharp Rise in Crossings and Deaths

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