Growing up in a refugee camp
IRIDIMI, Chad, August 2 (UNHCR) - Like many 11-year-old girls, Fatouma likes singing, dancing and playing volleyball with her friends. But unlike her peers around the world, she pursues her hobbies in a refugee camp in eastern Chad.
"It is like a prison and it is not home," she says of life in Iridimi camp, where she and her family have been living among nearly 15,000 refugees since they fled the Darfur region of western Sudan over a year ago.
To break the routine of camp life, Fatouma and her friends perform traditional Sudanese songs and dances whenever there are special celebrations in Iridimi. But there are few reasons to celebrate for these children and their families who have fled their country for fear of being killed, beaten or raped.
Children make up 60 percent of the over 200,000 Sudanese refugees living in 12 camps in eastern Chad. UNHCR works with UNICEF and other partners to make sure programmes targeting children are put in place in all the camps.
Adolphe Mbaikouma Thomtet, UNICEF's protection officer in Iridimi, works with children in the camp every day. Himself a former refugee, he can detect the suffering behind their broad smiles and the "SOS call" behind their laugh.
"At first, you don't see the difference between a young Sudanese refugee and another child in Chad because they look alike and wear the same worn-out clothes," he says. "But when you look closer, the refugee children will tell you about their suffering and fears. They don't know why they are refugees and have to live in a camp. They constantly fear attacks by armed militia, they are afraid of the wind beating against the tent at night. And they all say the same thing: 'We want to go home, back to Darfur. We want to see our house, our friends'."
In Iridimi camp, US-based non-governmental organisation Christian Children's Fund has set up programmes for preschoolers and older children so that they can learn to play and laugh again.
CCF's representative in Iridimi, Pauline Deinsi, says refugee children know they are not home and that they are foreigners. "When they first arrived a year ago, the young Sudanese did not talk much and kept to themselves," she notes. "A year later, the children are less fearful, more confident and it shows in their drawings and their songs. They are more cheerful."
Other child-related activities include identifying separated children and unaccompanied minors. Aid workers estimate that several hundred refugee children in camps in eastern Chad are separated from their parents, and live with family members or relatives. UNHCR looks after children who are heads of households. It also seeks to prevent exploitation and violence against them, and to discourage harmful traditional practices such as female genital mutilation, early marriage and forced marriage.
Another challenge is to promote school attendance for girls and boys who often have to help with family chores like collecting water and firewood and taking care of younger siblings and livestock. Out of 70,000 children of school-going age in the camps, close to 54,000 attended school over the last year.
Youth committees have also been put in place to ensure that the children's voices are heard and their views taken into account - an important part of the protection work in the 12 camps in eastern Chad.
Despite the harsh life in exile, the young refugees have held on to their dreams - many want to be teachers, singers and MSF doctors "to visit many countries".
Fatouma says she wants "to study and become a teacher and go back home ... to Darfur when there is peace, only when there is peace."
In the meantime, she and her friends can only hope that the world will not forget about them.
By Ginette Le Breton in Abéché, Chad