South Sudan refugees plan future in exile but long for peace back home
South Sudanese refugees Meriem Joseph and Isaiah Kena seated outside their house in Tsore Refugee Camp, Ethiopia.
When Meriem and Isaiah fled South Sudan five years ago with their newborn son, they was desperate to keep him alive. Today, living in Tsore refugee camp in western Ethiopia, their goal is to secure their family's future.
Meriem wants her children to pursue education here, in exile, because she worries they will have few opportunities back home.
“Life in Ethiopia is good because we no longer hear any gunshots,” said the 22-year-old mother.
“I want my son to become a doctor and help patients in our village in South Sudan as there are so many patients and no doctors there,” she added.
Decades of violence and a civil war that followed soon after independence in 2011, have destroyed the little infrastructure that resource-rich South Sudan had. A fragile peace is in place, but it will take time before skilled people, including teachers, doctors, and social workers like Meriem’s husband, Isaiah Kena can return to help rebuild.
The couple still remember how armed men charged into their village in Maban, torched houses and killed people. They ran with their baby to the South Sudanese town of Bunj, where they slept in the open for several days, relying on the kindness of locals for food.
The family, like others before, finally crossed into Ethiopia where they were met by staff from the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR and Ethiopian authorities who transferred them to Tsore.
“This is a camp full of young people with a lot of potential.”
This camp hosts some 13,000 refugees and 60 per cent are under the age of 18. This is the case with South Sudan’s refugees across the region – children are suffering the most dire impacts of the conflict, making up nearly two thirds of the country's displaced population of 4 million.
“This is a camp full of young people with a lot of potential. These young people could greatly contribute to the development of our host country while we are here and to our respective countries when we return home,” said Isaiah who also volunteers with aid agencies in the camp.
“Education is the only way of acquiring knowledge and skills that will be useful to the refugees and for their future.”
Education is one of the key priorities of the African Union’s “Year of Refugees, Returnees and Internally Displaced Persons: Towards Durable Solutions to Forced Displacement in Africa.”
Equatorial Guinea’s President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, the AU appointed Champion of this year’s theme, recently spent time in Tsore with Meriem and Isaiah. His visit was intended to show solidarity and gain insight into the challenges facing refugees.
“Education is the only way of acquiring knowledge and skills that will be useful to the refugees and for their future,” he said.
“In the meantime, I would like to make a special and specific appeal to all AU member states to continue extending protection to refugees and internally displaced persons while keeping their doors open to new arrivals.”
In his role, President Obiang is expected to help mobilize AU leaders and bring high-level support to address the causes of forced displacement and find solutions.