Refugee engineers help to build weatherproof shelters for fellow refugees in Sudan
Before conflict erupted in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region nearly two years ago, everything was on track for Medhn Enday, a refugee mother of two. She had earned her degree in construction engineering from Mekelle University, in the regional capital, and then worked as a forewoman before starting her own company. “I was working as a contractor and I had been winning tenders,” she recalls. “I was taking care of my family, my children, my own home and my life.”
When the fighting forced her to flee across the border to Sudan, all of that came to an end. But in Tunaydbah refugee camp, Medhn has found a way to put her specialist skills to good use, working with another female engineer to help build over 600 durable shelters for their fellow refugees.
Like Medhn, Azmera Glmedn worked in construction back home in Tigray, supervising several projects for the local government. When war broke out, she also had to leave everything behind, escaping to Sudan with her husband and their two children. “We came with nothing,” says Azmera.
Despite the uncertainty and upheaval, Azmera and Mehdn have found purpose in Tunaydbah, building new lives for themselves as they build new homes for the other refugees.
“At the beginning, I was feeling bad because I did not expect to live this kind of life,” Azmera says of finding herself living in a refugee camp. “I felt unfortunate. But now I feel Sudan is my second home.”
Medhn is a forewoman and Azmera a site supervisor in the construction of sturdy tukuls, traditional circular stone houses with thatched roofs, that are far better at withstanding extreme weather than the tents and rickety stick and tarpaulin shelters they replace.
In 2021, heavy rains and strong winds tore through the fragile shelters in Tunaydbah and nearby Um Rakuba refugee camp, making thousands of refugee families homeless once again. “Last year, I witnessed the destruction caused by the heavy rains and strong winds, and I feel happy doing this job knowing that I’m helping keep families safe,” says Azmera.
Working for MedAir – a partner to UNHCR, the UN refugee agency – Medhn and Azmera’s team is building tukuls in Tunaydbah, each with shoulder-high stone walls and thick weather-proof thatch, some even topped with ornate Ethiopian Coptic crosses that are a reminder of home.
“I supervise construction, from setting out and reading the plan, to controlling the quality of the construction,” says Azmera. “I also trained 40 women and changed their perception on construction. We recruited them and gave them an opportunity to work.”
Azmera’s skills and knowhow mean she is respected in this traditionally male-dominated industry. “No one underestimates me because I am a woman,” she says.
UNHCR, and partners, MedAir, NRC and ACTED, have together constructed a total of over 2,300 durable, weather-resistant shelters in Tunaydbah, Um Rakuba and Babikri camps, all in Sudan’s Gedaref State.
In addition, to mitigate the impact of floods, UNHCR, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) and other partners have constructed drainage systems and canals in flood-prone areas around the camps.
For Medhn and Azmera, all of this is more than just a way to keep busy. It allows them to put their hard-earned skills to good use, to earn a living, to do something for others, and to contribute to their community.
“One thing that I will never forget when I leave here,” says Azmera, “is that we worked hard for the community that is here with us now, and will be with us when we go back home.”