Ethiopia: laughing and learning in Dollo Ado
21 March 2012

The drama group at Melkadida Refugee Camp, Dollo Ado perform at an event. (Jesuit Refugee Service)
"Our youth now are happy and busy playing sports and thinking about their beloved league. Those hands that were firing bullets are now handling pens and trying to write their names. Our women and girls have friends to whom they can confide their unique challenges. We thank JRS for being with us and in us." ~ Mr. Lydid, Chairman of the Refugee Central Committee.

By Seyoum Asfaw, Country Director, JRS Dollo Ado, Ethiopia

(Dollo Ado, Ethiopia) March 21, 2012 – Last year, in August 2011, the children in Melkadida Refugee Camp, Dollo Ado were struggling to survive. They were on the verge of death. I witnessed their agony and I saw the many pits in graveyards prepared in advance. Now, six months later, life is different and I am happy to watch them playing, dancing, laughing and learning.

In the midst of the 2011 East Africa drought crisis, I was part of the JRS team that travelled for the first time to assess the possibilities for JRS engagement in Dollo Ado. Located in southeast Ethiopia, refugee camps in Dollo Ado served as the reception point for thousands of Somalis fleeing severe drought and conflict in their home country. What we saw moved my heart and touched the whole team deeply. The arid, hot weather had weakened the refugees and it was hard to witness people whose sense of humor had completely gone. Death felt so close by. Within days of the visit, JRS had decided to act.

Return to Dollo Ado

In February, I decided to return to Dollo Ado to witness for myself the impact of JRS’s activities which started in November 2011. As we touched down on the airstrip, I could see the flourishing businesses in the town, greatly boosted by the various humanitarian organizations working in the camps. JRS believes that the local community should also benefit from its presence, so I was pleased to see this life.

After a slow drive along the very rough Melkadida road, we arrived at the camp and as we walked, I was surprised to hear the voices of little children calling out to JRS. I realized that not only do they now have the energy to shout and run after us, but they also know JRS. I was proud to see that our mission of accompaniment over the last few months has been effective. 

Dancing with refugees

One of the activities running under the JRS youth program is 'Drama and Traditional Music.' Friday is the day for drama club rehearsals and music practice. I was fascinated to watch the young girls and women energetically dancing as if it was their first and last dance. Of course we also joined in – and I felt a strong sense that things are now very different for them.

Later that day, drama sketches took place. The refugees were able to express the scars of their past – loneliness, grief and isolation – whilst positively contemplating the future. The mini-dramas acted out in front of us also expressed the present – a slowly-evolving sense of identity and togetherness in a time of recovery.  

Melkadida Premier League

Yes there is such a thing as Melkadida Premier League! Since the inaugural first match of the season in November, the four refugee teams and one host community team have been regularly playing together. I stood with the Project Director and enjoyed watching a match. I was impressed to see a real energy and team spirit. The league has given the youth at the camp something new to engage with — they are competitive and always eager to play. It is also amazing to see the big crowd which encircles the pitch on match day. And women are not excluded – in the Somali culture it is not common to come to such events, but these football matches are unique and women are made welcome. 

In the early weeks of the league, post-match violence was a problem – but I heard the positive news that the JRS Youth Coordinator has now introduced a 15 minute pre-match orientation and post-match evaluation which has reduced incidents and improved relations between the teams and the supporters. Football is one of the ways in which techniques for peace-building and conflict resolution can be practiced in a controlled environment.

"Playing in the team makes us feel dignified and looked after. This is a time to let go of the past and enjoy the present. I am 21 now and I have spent the last 19 years almost in vain," said Hassan Mohamed*, football player in Melkadida Premier League.

Hunger for education

I was inspired to see the desire for education that exists at Melkadida Camp. The JRS adult literacy classes were full to bursting, and at all three sites students sat crowded together in the JRS tents, eager to learn. Women appeared with children carried on their backs – but that did not stop them sitting and learning with everyone else. It seemed to me that I was witnessing the realization of a long-standing hunger for education. 

More than 530 refugees are registered and actively participating in the adult literacy program this term. Demand exceeds supply however and so JRS are considering additional requests carefully within the limits of the program. 

Words of encouragement

At the end of my visit, I spent some time with the Mr. Lydid, Chairman of the Refugee Central Committee. His words about the impact of JRS in the camp were very encouraging to me. "Our youth now are happy and busy playing sports and thinking about their beloved league. Those hands that were firing bullets are now handling pens and trying to write their names. Our women and girls have friends to whom they can confide their unique challenges. We thank JRS for being with us and in us."  

I believe what the work we are doing in Dollo Ado is magnificent, something that truly reflects our mission as JRS. We have been welcomed by the refugee community in such magnitude for helping to ease their lives despite the harsh living conditions. We are helping to give refugees a sense of living for today, as well as dreaming for tomorrow.

*Not his real name.

JRS has been accompanying and serving refugees in Melkadida Refugee Camp, Dollo Ado, since November 2011. The project aims to help the massive numbers of Somali refugees who have flooded to the camp to escape conflict, drought and poverty in their country. JRS is in the early stages of implementing comprehensive education and psychosocial programs at the camp.