Ethiopia: How context shaped my perspective
17 February 2013

The JRS team in Melkadida Refugee Camp, Dollo Ado, Ethiopia. (Mulugeta Eyesus/JRS)
My frequent interaction with the host community administration has given me an opportunity to challenge some of less sensitive social views, which hinder the development of society.
Dollo Ado, 17 February 2013 - About eight years ago, I started learning about urban refugees through questioning, participatory observation and listening to their stories. In 2012, I passionately started learning new experiences with Somali refugees in Dollo Ado refugee camp complex, Ethiopia. With this reflective statement, I will share my ongoing learning journey with refugees. I do have positive and negative memories of my work with Somali refugees such as their voracious desire for education and entertainment; and some unpleasant actions by some youth on JRS staff. However, the clash between my reasonable mind and the culture of the people I work with is a source of frustration. Though I am culturally sensitive and believe in analyzing or interpreting situations in their own context; anarchism and abuse of power by the local district administration in the name of culture irritates me a lot.

Change of attitude. After months of stay at Melkadida refugee camp, I came to realize the local district administration is in control of almost every situation. This taught me to avoid any rash decisions even if I am absolutely right in legal terms. My strong passion to learn and experience a new environment my old way of handling conflicting situations. My frequent interaction with the host community administration has given me an opportunity to challenge some of less sensitive social views, which hinder the development of society.

The best way I knew to cope with my stressful and frustrating moments is by walking, listening and observing the living conditions of refugees, which is by far more stressful and frustrating than my situation. There was a time I cried in my office after listening to a story of a Somali refugee woman by the name Jamila Ali (not real name), who spent a dark and very rainy night in a torn tent with her five small children. The heavy and continuous rain tormented her family who had nowhere to escape apart from changing locations in the tent. I found it difficult to console such a person but shared the news I had heard the same night about some positive progress Somalia is making. Immediately after Jamila left my office I burst into tears with a mixed feeling of hope that they (refugees) will go back home one day but the pain that had been inflicted on the family disturbed me. It is inhumane and no child deserves such a night or life.

Inspiration. In the same rainy season, I met a refugee man called Kasim Mohamed (not real name) and he showed me his tent which is old and leaking heavily. He said, "Mr. Mulugeta, I live a dog life." In this context a dog life is equivalent to inhumane life. Despite all these frustrating situations, I have witnessed refugees' having passionate love for education like Aysha Farahi (not real name). In November 2012, Aysha, who is a mother of two children, was told by her husband to stop attending the JRS tailoring class as there is no one to look after the children. She refused and continued her education saying that he can look after the children as he has time when she is in class. She added that I love this training that might enable me to feed my children in the immediate future. Likewise, I have witnessed in our drawing or traditional tattoo making (body art) class refugee women who decorate bodies quite artistically.

After this enriching experience, I am now emotionally and mentally ready for new challenges, one of which is extending our programme to the neighbouring Kobe refugee camp. I believe that with my determination and heightened sense of compassion I will continue accompanying refugees to live a dignified life.

By Mulugeta W/Eyesus, Dollo Ado Project Director, JRS-Ethiopia.

In November 2011, JRS started working in Melkadida refugee camp, Dollo Ado, south-eastern Ethiopia to respond to the severe drought crisis in the Horn of Africa. The crisis forced hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees to flee drought and conflict, and cross the border into Ethiopia, as well as surrounding countries. JRS responded to the need by providing psychosocial counselling and literacy services and by organising recreational activities. Melkadida refugee camp is one of five camps in Dollo Ado on the border with Somalia.