A rough but happy journey home for Sierra Leonean refugees
KAMBIA DISTRICT, Sierra Leone, June 7 (UNHCR) - The journey from Guinea to Sierra Leone is rough, over difficult and often almost impassable roads. But for Sierra Leonean refugees heading home after almost a decade in exile, it is still a joy to finally arrive on native soil.
"I am home, there is no place like home," cried 30-year-old Finda as she arrived at Kambia way station in Sierra Leone after 12 years of exile in a UNHCR refugee camp in Guinea.
Married and pregnant, Finda decided to come home to Sierra Leone alone to give birth to her third child, hoping it would survive. Her two other children died in Guinea. Her husband stayed in Guinea as he had found a good job.
Finda is just one of over 10,000 refugees UNHCR has helped return to Sierra Leone from Guinea since late January this year - most of them anxious to return home before the organised repatriation programme finishes at the end of June.
At Kambia way station in the western district of Kambia, a further convoy of refugees arrived late last week, ready to start their new life.
But, after the arduous road journey, many returnees are suffering from nausea and diarrhoea when they arrive at the way station. A four-person team from a UNHCR partner, the International Medical Corps (IMC) medically screens the refugees and makes them as comfortable as possible so they can travel to their final destinations the following day.
Returnees are also interviewed to check for any protection problems, with vulnerable cases identified in Guinea checked again.
They get a small travel allowance as well as food and non-food items to help them reintegrate in the first few months of their return.
As well as assisting refugees return home, UNHCR is also supporting - for the second year running - Community Empowerment Projects (CEPs) in regions that had been ravaged by the war.
Late last week Sierra Leone's President, Dr Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, stressed the project's importance at the second-year launch ceremony in Kambia district.
"UNHCR has not only helped people to return, it has given them valuable skills that they can use to build their future in Sierra Leone," said President Kabbah.
CEPs are small-scale schemes identified and carried out by the community with technical support from the American Refugee Committee and UNHCR funding.
So far, over 90 projects are underway in the Kambia district, ranging from the provision of rice mills to skills training, support for local health clinics, HIV/AIDS awareness and the upgrading of over 40 schools.
The skills training projects include classes in hairdressing, carpentry, cloth weaving, tailoring and adult literacy for women.
Hawa Sesay, a recent graduate of the adult literacy class, beams with joy as she writes her name. The 37-year-old returnee's education came to an abrupt halt in the third grade when her father died and she was sent out to work. Later in life, the untimely death of her husband meant she had to fend for herself and her four school-age children.
After studying five days per week, two-and-a-half hours per day, Sesay can now read, write and run a fruit and vegetable stand in the market that allows her to support her children. With her improved counting skills, she is no longer afraid of being cheated by someone.
Sesay's proudest moment came when she could help her children with their homework. "All my children are in school so that one day they can go to university," she boasts.
Being self-reliant and financially independent is a top priority for many women in the CEPs.
Since 2001, over 260,000 people have returned to Sierra Leone from neighbouring countries.