In Ethiopia, UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Barbara Hendricks encounters courage and resilience

News Stories, 26 October 2010

© UNHCR/H. Mathisen
UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Barbara Hendricks visits Sheder General Secondary School, which is open to refugees and the local youth alike. Sheder camp, eastern Ethiopia.

JIJIGA, Ethiopia October 26 (UNHCR) UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador for Life and renowned soprano Barbara Hendricks is touring Ethiopia in order to bring greater attention to the tens of thousands of refugees living in camps in this east African country.

On Monday, Hendricks, who is the UN refugee agency's longest-serving Goodwill Ambassador, traveled to the town of Jijiga near the border with Somalia where she met with some of the 80,000 Somali refugees now sheltering in Ethiopia.

"I hope my visit can increase awareness of this often forgotten refugee situation," said Hendricks. In my 24 years working on behalf of UNHCR I have rarely come across such powerful stories as I heard here in the camps here."

Among those the Swedish-American classical singer met was Idil Sahal Hassan, who arrived at Jijiga's Sheder camp two weeks ago with her two children. She recounted how her husband had been killed in an explosion at the Mogasdishu hotel where he was working and her eldest son shot dead by members of an anti-government militia. Fleeing with her remaining children, she arrived at the UNHCR-run camp exhausted and destitute. Camp conditions are basic, she told Hendricks, but she said she is grateful to have escaped the violence and death that was part of daily life at home.

"If she doesn't give up, how can I," said Hendricks. "The dignity and courage of the refugees here will stay with me."

Nearly three thousands Somali refugees have crossed into Ethiopia this year to escape the violence that is wracking their homeland. The Sheder camp is the most recent to be constructed in eastern Ethiopia and with refugees arriving every day there is a constant need for additional resources.

Water is in short supply. Health care and educational facilities can't meet the demands of the growing refugee population. The local population also suffers in this arid region of the country so UNHCR assistance to refugees is often extended to host communities. Yet, with only two months left in the year, UNHCR has received less than half of what it has sought from the donor community.

"The basic requirements of the refugees and host communities are being met," said Hendricks. "But clearly the needs are greater than the resources available."

For young people in the camps, there is little to keep them occupied. Educational opportunities after primary school are limited, as are jobs or vocational training.

Youth leader Hasan Mohammad came to the Aw Barre camp three years ago from Mogadishu. "We need more than protection," he said. "We need help to forget what we have gone through and the hope of being able to live meaningful lives."

With no prospect that refugees will be able to safely return home, or fully integrate into their host community, UNHCR is appealing for more resettlement opportunities to alleviate the plight of Somali refugees and to ease the burden on Ethiopia, which has shown hospitality towards refugees for decades.

Ethiopia hosts more than 140,000 refugees with the largest group coming from Somalia followed by Eritrea and Sudan.

By Hanne Mathisen, ed. Tim Irwin