Empowering Ivorian refugees for eventual return
PLEEBO CAMP, Liberia, March 24 (UNHCR) - Every night, a group of children gathers outside the UN refugee agency's office in Harper, south-eastern Liberia. They are not taking night classes or planning any mischief, but are simply there to study and do their homework by the light illuminating the compound.
Many of these children - among them Ivorian refugees and Liberian returnees - have to help their families to farm after school. The only time they have to study is at night, but few have access to lanterns or kerosene to provide light in this war-devastated region.
Still, they are considered among the lucky ones. With just one school and seven teachers in the area, only about 100 refugee and returnee children have a chance at education. Even then, they have to make do with a school that lacks furniture, blackboards, pens and notebooks.
Some of the refugee children live in Pleebo camp near Harper, and have to walk about 20 km to school every day. Pleebo camp hosts some 100 Ivorian refugees, while UNHCR estimates that another 20,000 Ivorian refugees live among communities bordering Côte d'Ivoire.
Tens of thousands of Ivorians fled for Liberia when civil war erupted at home in September 2002. Many subsequently returned to Côte d'Ivoire, where a ceasefire agreement signed in May 2003 held until violence broke out again in November last year.
Many of the Ivorians remaining in this part of Liberia work in the fields of local farmers, produce charcoal or do odd jobs for a living. They live peacefully among the local population, who benefit from the health post in Pleebo camp and who share natural resources like water and firewood with the refugees.
Life is hard for everyone here. Maryland county, where Harper is located, was at the frontline of fighting during the 14-year Liberian conflict. Infrastructure has been completely destroyed. Local communities struggle to survive while hosting their Ivorian neighbours and fellow Liberians who have returned from exile in the region.
"Access to this part of Liberia was hindered until recently due to impassable roads and for security reasons," said UNHCR's Representative in Liberia, Moses Okello, who stressed the urgent need for rehabilitation now that the county has been declared ready for refugee returns.
"Together with our implementing partners, UNHCR has started a series of activities to rebuild schools and offer education assistance in Pleebo," he noted.
Heath care is also a priority in the camp, where malaria is common. The camp's clinic, which serves both refugees and locals, sees an average of 28 patients a day. Okello added that UNHCR and its partners are working to improve health facilities in the area.
These efforts are all part of community empowerment projects to help the refugees, returnees and their host community become more self-reliant. World Vision Liberia, for example, is training women to bake and sew - skills that will prove useful both in exile and upon their return home.
Many Ivorian refugees in Liberia's border areas do want to go home once the situation in Côte d'Ivoire stabilises. "I am willing to return home, to walk around my village without fear of the armed men," said Ivorian refugee Senou Kpangai. "Many houses in my village have been destroyed, including mine, but I am ready to repair it and look for a job to buy building materials. I am a good carpenter."
By Francesca Fontanini