Helping the most vulnerable in Dadaab

Telling the Human Story, 10 August 2011

© UNHCR/F.Courbet
Among the tens of thousands fleeing Somalia are people with special needs. UNHCR and its partners have been trying to identify and help such people, including those living with disability.

DADAAB, Kenya, August 10 (UNHCR) Her right leg is twisted outward at a 45-degree angle just below the kneecap. And when Bishara Hassan Hussein steps forward with her baby wrapped against her body, it seems as though she has a branch sticking out from her body. The leg throbs with a constant pain, especially when she walks fast or for long distances.

It's hard to believe that she recently travelled for seven days to reach Dadaab in northern Kenya from Dinsor in southern Somalia. It must have been a terrible ordeal, but the 40-year-old has endured a lifetime of insults and vulnerability because of her leg.

She learned she was different at age 10, when her mother told her that something had "pierced" her. No one in her village wanted to marry the young girl, except an old man. Hussein's father jumped at the chance to give her away. "They call me jiisey [cripple]," Hussein says, covering her mouth as she speaks. "I see people imitating me, trying to walk the way I do."

When Hussein arrived in Kenya's Dadaab area, she was received by UNHCR and given food, shelter and cooking items. Then she was referred to Handicap International, one of UNHCR's implementing partners, for help with the physical challenge she faces.

She will be given an elbow crutch, physiotherapy and counselling to help raise her self-esteem. Equally as important, she will be provided an opportunity probably for the first time in her life to freely discuss her physical and personal challenges without fear of harassment or judgement.

"People who have a disability suffer a double vulnerability," says Jacob Kitiyo, operations manager for Handicap International. "Their physical condition makes them targets for theft and much worse. And disability makes them poorer than most Somalis."

As famine and conflict drive tens of thousands of Somalis across borders in search of asylum and assistance, UNHCR is paying particular attention to the needs of people with specific needs. The agency tries to ensure that those who require medical assistance or who live with disabilities receive help in the fastest possible way.

UNHCR works to make sure children who have been orphaned or abused are taken care of by loving families. Protecting the vulnerable is critical not only for refugees arriving in the camps, but also for host communities.

"Violence and famine break down the survival strategies of families and communities," says Vincent Briard, a UNHCR protection officer for Dadaab's three refugee camps. "The importance of protection is to help to rebuild an environment in which people can re-establish their lives in safety and dignity." Doing so is no easy task, especially in an arid outpost that has seen more than 70,000 new arrivals over the past two months.

Beyond the camp boundaries, Hawa Issack Mursal does her best to protect her children. After arriving from the Lower Juba region in southern Somalia, her husband rushed one of their children to the hospital for treatment of severe malnutrition. Her youngest child, Aden, was born two days into the journey along with his twin brother Ibrahim, who perished on the road. Aden sleeps under a multi-colored cloth in a makeshift shelter that leans perilously against the wind.

Mursal is desperate to ensure her baby son survives. "She has plastic sheeting for shelter and food to eat, but she is too exhausted to make a proper shelter," says Abu Bakr Mohamed, a nurse with Médecins Sans Frontières, which works with UNHCR. Without such shelter, the family is vulnerable to the elements and to the hyenas that have been known to stray into human territory.

Roger Naylor, UNHCR field officer for the Dagahaley camp, is relieved that outreach workers have located Mursal and alerted him to the risk. With the plethora of new arrivals coming in each day, community outreach represents one of many critical ways in which the vulnerable are identified and attended to.

As an "at risk" case, Mursal and her family are prioritized for relocation into the new extension at Ifo camp, where UNHCR and its partners are working furiously to complete shelter for a minimum of 90,000 refugees by the end of November. "There is no reason we can't fast track them into a new home," says Naylor. "But these cases highlight the challenges that we face."

Providing a sense of stability and dignity goes beyond the considerable task of building sites and registering arrivals. There are some 400,000 refugee inhabitants of the camps at Dadaab, all of whom deserve dignity, many of whom are children.

Thirteen-year-old Mohamed sits on his hands and knees at the children's centre at the Hagadera camp and draws crops and flowers. The family had made a living in the southern Somalia town of Bu'aale as farmers of sorghum, beans and watermelon before the drought and conflict took their toll. In May, when everything ran out, they made their way to the camps in Kenya.

"These children have not seen aid organizations, they have not seen governments. They have just seen bullets," says Hussien Omar, 26, child-friendly space supervisor for UNHCR partner, Save the Children. "This is the place where children can come together, play together and share their different problems." When Mohamed isn't drawing or jumping rope, he's playing football and singing songs with a group of refugee children from Ethiopia.

For still others at the camps, a dignified existence means being able to recall the past without fear of retribution. While the wounds suffered from conflict and loss are at times overwhelming, there is a certain comfort in being somewhere relatively safe.

From a hospital bed in Dadaab, Mohamed Jamaa Omar, 48, can safely mourn. A few months ago, Omar was working in Mogadishu's Bakara market as a porter. When hostilities broke out between Al-Shabaab militia forces and the Somalia government, the rebels told Omar to pick up a gun and fight.

When he refused, the rebels shot his 10-year-old son in the head and chest killing him instantly. Then they put a bullet through Omar's abdomen and left him for dead. "I had accepted that I would also die, but what disturbed me most was that my other children would live without a father," Omar says.

A group of strangers took Omar to hospital and later he was sent to Hagadera camp in Dadaab. And while Omar's injuries are severe he is paralyzed from the waist down he says that he is grateful to have been evacuated from Somalia.

"It is a terrible life in Mogadishu. There is always war. There is never peace," says Omar. "You are always worried about what will happen to you. Here at least I know I am safe. I don't have to fear in the night for the bullets and the guns."

By Greg Beals in Dadaab, Kenya

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