Refugees and locals live side-by-side in Niger’s 'opportunity villages'
Among them is Jamilla Oumaru, a 25-year-old refugee from Nigeria. She is the president of a cooperative of 20 refugees and local women who work together to produce peanut oil. “The advantage of working as a group is that we quickly get to know each other,” says Jamilla.
Next to her is her friend from Niger and right-hand woman in the cooperative, Hamsou Mohamat, 35, who was born in Garin Kaka. “When you enter here, you can’t tell who is a refugee and who isn’t, everyone laughs at the same jokes," she says. "Because the atmosphere is good and we work together, the tasks are done more quickly.”
Alternative to camps
Located 22 kilometres from Maradi, Niger’s second largest city, Garin Kaka is one of three "opportunity villages" that form part of an initiative by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, together with the Niger government and local leaders, to provide refugees with a more sustainable alternative to living in camps.
Over 4,000 Nigerian refugees - including Jamilla’s family - were relocated to Garin Kaka in 2020. In total, nearly 18,000 refugees have been moved away from border areas to the three sites, all of which are located next to existing villages.
“The aim was to settle the refugees in a peaceful locality where there is security, and where they have access to land and markets to promote income-generating activities,” explains Charlotte Kirobo Kadja, UNHCR Protection Officer in Maradi. “To promote social cohesion, new infrastructures and basic services such as health care, education, and water and sanitation have been installed in the village that benefit both communities.”
We became like sisters by working together.
Jamilla and Hamsou quickly became friends after they both signed up to join the peanut oil cooperative, one of several income-generating projects in the village which UNHCR partner, Action pour le Bien Etre, helped to start up. “We became like sisters by working together. It was easy from the start because we share the same language. We share our joys and sorrows. We are in communion,” says Hamsou.
Refugees bring opportunities
Maradi is only 47 kilometres from Nigeria and the Hausa towns and villages, which span both sides of the border, have always traded. But since May 2019, the region has been facing an influx of refugees from north-western Nigeria, fleeing lootings, attacks and kidnappings by armed gangs.
Jamilla remembers the day in July 2019 when her village in the Sokoto region was attacked. “It was midday when the bandits entered our village. I was in my shop serving a customer. We fled without having time to take our shoes. A neighbour helped me carry the children,” she recalls. “They killed seven people and left with young girls from the village.”
After sleeping in the bush and walking for a day, Jamilla reunited with her husband and together they crossed the border.
Today, Niger is hosting 300,000 refugees, the majority from Nigeria, but also from Mali and Burkina Faso – a major challenge for a country that is one of the poorest in the world in terms of its per capita income. But some local leaders have viewed the influx as an opportunity.
“The arrival of the refugees has changed our living conditions,” says Mohamad Yakouba, Garin Kaka's chief, who agreed to the relocations. “The village has doubled in size. There were 7,000 people here before; we had no health centre, and a very small school, only two classes. With the arrival of the refugees, we have a health centre and new classrooms. We also have a water supply, which was not the case before.”
Chiefs from surrounding villages warned Mohamad that the refugees would bring problems but other than minor neighbourly disputes, such as livestock grazing in other people’s fields, “everyone is happy” he says.
“Anyone who wants to stay in Garin Kaka can stay. If they plan on building a house here, they will be part of the village. Even my son has married a refugee,” he adds with a laugh.
Back in the peanut-roasting shed, Jamilla, Hamsou and their team will work all afternoon to extract 22 litres of refined oil from the 80 kilogrammes of groundnuts they collected from a producer in the neighbouring village. “It’s an oil that sells easily because it’s good quality and healthy,” says Jamilla.
The money from sales of the oil is put into a collective fund that is distributed fairly among the cooperative's members who include 16 refugee women and four from the host community.
But life is far from easy in this region of the Sahel where temperatures are rising 1.5 times faster than the global average, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Swept by sandy winds, temperatures often reach 40° Celsius at this time of year, making farming almost impossible. Both locals and refugees face similar struggles to find enough work and food. “I feel safe now, but life is hard,” says Jamila. “My husband has no job, and there is little economic activity. The aid we receive is very small.”
Each refugee in the opportunity villages receives monthly cash assistance of 3,500 CFA (US$5,90) from the UN's World Food Programme (WFP). The amount, which has dropped from 5,000 CFA ($8,42) last year due to funding shortfalls, is barely enough to buy food, let alone other essentials, says Jamila.
By 5pm the sun is still blazing, and Jamilla has joined Hamsou in the shade of her courtyard where Hamsou’s 10 children are playing. “We sometimes get together at the end of the day to chat,” says Hamsou.
While she misses her country, Jamilla is realistic about the prospects of going home in the near future: “Of course I would like to return to my village, but there is still no security. If necessary, I will stay in Garin Kaka without any worries. Now I have made friends here.”