From refugee to leader: an Ethiopian woman shows the way in Kenya

Telling the Human Story, 16 January 2014

© UNHCR/S.Camia
Alemnish Tefera Abebe smiles as she stands on the balcony of her brightly coloured building complex in Ruiru, which is located on the edge of Nairobi. The area is home to hundreds of refugees from Ethiopia.

RUIRU, Kenya, January 16 (UNHCR) On the outskirts of Nairobi, Alemnish Tefera Abebe sits in her living room, curtains drawn to block out the invasive midday heat. The cool darkness contrasts with bright yellow cushion covers that adorn her sofa and chairs. "I sell them for a living," she says, to support herself and her 13-year old daughter, Gloria.

Alem is one of 500 refugees from Ethiopia who have settled in Ruiru, a dormitory town just three kilometres outside the Kenyan capital. It is at once a bustling industrial area and home to lush green coffee plantations. Just off a major highway, swarms of people kick up dust from red dirt roads. Stalls and shops are alive with colour, as men push carts, selling chickens trapped in cages.

In Ruiru, Alem is a well-known and beloved figure. "She has the trust of the whole community," says Ojuni Ojulu, who serves with her on the Ethiopian refugee community council. "When mothers give birth, she's always there, making sure they get to the hospital. She's also a leader at the church she attends."

Alem is more modest when she speaks about her presence in others' lives. "We are always together," is all she says.

This is Alem's life now, full of connections and meaning. But she's made many sacrifices and survived much trauma to get here.

In 2004, Alem and her daughter fled the violence raging between her tribe, the Anuaks, and the Ethiopian army. The fighting left hundreds of people dead, mostly men and boys, in the western region of Gambela.

Witnesses say women were being beaten and raped; hundreds of homes were being burned to the ground. The conflict prompted thousands of Anuaks to leave Ethiopia for neighbouring countries, such as Sudan and Kenya.

Alem was faced with a difficult decision either leave behind everyone and everything that she had ever known or stay and face the risk of violence, rape and even being killed. At first she says, she "stayed with the hope that things would get better. But they kept getting worse," she says through an interpreter.

She took her daughter and escaped to Nairobi, even leaving behind her husband, who did not want to accompany them.

She plunged into life in her adopted community, forging new, life-restoring bonds. "When there were arrivals from Ethiopia, especially women," Ojuni says, "she would offer her home as a place to stay, before they moved on to the refugee camp."

As she offered her home and her time, her fellow refugees could see her commitment to others. They responded by electing her to the nine-member community council, which presents the needs of Ruiru's Ethiopian community to UNHCR and other organizations.

Alem is the representative for both finance and women. "I meet with others up to three times each week, listening to their concerns and discussing possible solutions," she says. "I love women and I will always stand up for them, to make sure they get the services they deserve."

Her contributions are applauded by UNHCR. "Women leaders like Alem make one feel humbled when you understand how much she invests in being a volunteer for the community," says Joanina Karugaba, UNHCR's senior regional advisor for women and children at the Regional Support Hub in Nairobi. "Supporting such women adds to the value of refugee communities being able to reach those most in need. UNHCR and NGOs must invest in women to ensure that they fulfill their potential in contributing to family and society."

Alem wants to see more young girls, especially her daughter, follow her lead, and she emphasizes the importance of learning as the key to lifelong success.

"My strength lies with the hope in my child being someone in the future [because of] education," she says. "That is the driving force I have within myself."

By Shirley Camia in Ruiru, Kenya