Refugees Magazine Issue 105 (Life in a refugee camp) - Shelter: No place like home

Refugees Magazine, 1 September 1996

Shelter is one of the basics in any refugee situation, and its provision can be a matter of life and death. UNHCR attempts to ensure that housing is suitable to local conditions and traditions.

It is a far cry from the stone house they left behind in Somalia, but the small hut with a floor area roughly the size of a ping-pong table is home for Sofia Abdi Ahmad, her husband and seven children in Ethiopia's Hartisheik refugee camp.

It was a lot more comfortable when they first arrived in 1988 after fleeing the civil war in north-west Somalia. The blue and white plastic sheeting UNHCR had given them covered the dome-shaped hut, or tukul, and protected the family from the elements.

Violent winds blasting Hartisheik have since torn the tarpaulin to shreds, although its tattered remains can still be seen woven into a patchwork quilt of old rags and wheat sacks that cover the tukul from the ground up. Lack of funding for the Horn of Africa operation has prevented UNHCR from replacing the 8-year-old plastic, although some new sheets have now begun to arrive.

"The place leaks. Often, we spend the night on our feet when it rains," says Abdi Ahmad, a former school teacher from Hargeisa in north-west Somalia. She is standing in the small entrance that opens into the kitchen, which is separated from the main quarters by a decaying curtain.

The hut looks neat and tidy, its earthen floor covered with plastic mats. The family's possessions include two suitcases, five pillows that have seen better times and some battered and smoke-blackened pots and pans. A charcoal-burning stove provides warmth from the cold and rain outside. The stove is one of the prized possessions Abdi Ahmad carried in her flight from Hargeisa.

Most tukuls in the neighbourhood are small and spartan inside. Each has a stove and straw mat. Latrines, covered by twigs and leaves, are constructed beside the houses. There's plenty of space between clumps of houses. Most refugees have their own gardens, planted with maize and vegetables during the rainy season. It's not much, but it's home for the time being.

Shelter is one of the basics in any refugee situation, and its provision can be a matter of life and death in areas of extreme weather. UNHCR employs shelter specialists and site planners who try to ensure that housing is suitable to local conditions and traditions. But there is one constant in all refugee camps no one lives in luxury.

One of the most common emergency shelter materials provided by UNHCR is plastic sheeting. The agency has purchased tons of it. Emblazoned with UNHCR's sheltering hands logo, it covers tens of thousands of shattered windows in Bosnia-Herzegovina and hundreds of thousands of refugee huts from Burundi to Bangladesh.

Over the last several years, UNHCR has been distributing a special type of plastic sheeting that holds up well under the hot, harsh weather conditions of Africa and Asia, says Wolfgang Neumann, UNHCR's senior physical planner. Each sheet is 4 by 5 metres and costs $7.

Shelter for refugees in most countries usually means a space measuring 3.5 square metres per family. But in places with cold winters, such as Bosnia and Azerbaijan, the space can measure up to 5 or 6 square metres and normally includes a small kitchen and toilet.

"People in cold climates have to use buildings all the time. But in a number of African villages, the house does not serve the same purpose as in Europe or in Central Asia," says Neumann. "In many places, the house is just a dark hole, no window, only the door. It is a place to store property, to sleep. It is not a place to live."

The nomadic people in the Horn of Africa carry their tukuls on their camels and set them up whenever it's convenient, says Neumann.

While UNHCR has certain standards for shelter and for planning and laying out a camp, they are not always met.

"Standards are there to remind people of what we should aim at, but we cannot say that we have always reached these objectives," Neuman says. He mentions eastern Zaire's Goma region, home to 720,000 of the 1.7 million Rwandan refugees in three countries of the Great Lakes region of Africa. "Land is simply not available there," he says.

But the agency does its best with limited resources, and it tries to provide materials with which the refugees are familiar. In Southeast Asia, UNHCR has provided bamboo and palm leaves as part of shelter packages. In Iran, Afghan refugees build mud domes that are warm in winter and cool in summer. UNHCR provides them with doors and windows.

Neuman says in many situations, shelter is aimed specifically at keeping people dry in the rainy season and cool and shaded during the dry season. "Our intention is to save lives.... We want people to stay alive, to stay healthy," he says.

"Hartisheik is a very dry area. You have rains there over a very short period. During the rest of the year, there's very little rainfall. The shelter is more for shade and protection from dust, while in Goma, it is a place to sleep at night."

Despite their humble dwellings, refugees try to make life in a camp as liveable as possible. Abdi Ahmad's tidy hut reflects this pride. Today, she works as an assistant in the hospital at Hartisheik. Her husband, a former university professor, earns a living now delivering water by wheelbarrow to neighbours.

Abdi Ahmad wants nothing more than to return to Hargeisa and go back to the house she left behind. "I would like to start all over again," she says. Her husband went to north-west Somalia in July, to look for a job so all the family can go back. It's now just a matter of time before Abdi Ahmad and her family will finally be back in a real home, where they belong.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 105 (1996)