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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

Crossing the Gulf of Aden

Every year thousands of people in the Horn of Africa - mainly Somalis and Ethiopians - leave their homes out of fear or pure despair, in search of safety or a better life. They make their way over dangerous Somali roads to Bossaso in the northern semi-autonomous region of Puntland.

In this lawless area, smuggler networks have free reign and innocent and desperate civilians pay up to US$150 to make the perilous trip across the Gulf of Aden.

Some stay weeks on end in safe houses or temporary homes in Bossaso before they can depart. A sudden call and a departure in the middle of the night, crammed in small unstable boats. At sea, anything can happen to them - they are at the whim of smugglers. Some people get beaten, stabbed, killed and thrown overboard. Others drown before arriving on the beaches of Yemen, which have become the burial ground for hundreds who many of those who died en route.

Crossing the Gulf of Aden


In February 2005, one of the last groups of Somalilander refugees to leave Aisha refugee camp in eastern Ethiopia boarded a UNHCR convoy and headed home to Harrirad in North-west Somalia - the self-declared independent state of Somaliland. Two years ago Harrirad was a tiny, sleepy village with only 67 buildings, but today more than 1,000 people live there, nearly all of whom are former refugees rebuilding their lives.

As the refugees flow back into Somalia, UNHCR plans to close Aisha camp by the middle of the year. The few remaining refugees in Aisha - who come from southern Somalia - will most likely be moved to the last eastern camp, Kebribeyah, already home to more than 10,000 refugees who cannot go home to Mogadishu and other areas in southern Somalia because of continuing lawlessness there. So far refugees have been returning to only two areas of the country - Somaliland and Puntland in the north-east.


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

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