Jennifer Schulte, Program Officer, Youth and Livelihoods, and Elizabeth Cafferty, Senior Advocacy Officer, recently visited the Sheder and Aw Barre refugee camps in the Somali area of Ethiopia to learn more about the adolescent girls living there. This is the first in a series of blogs exploring the status of displaced adolescent girls–an extremely vulnerable population.
Sheder refugee camp is an hour and a half outside of Jijiga, the regional capital of the Somali area of Ethiopia. The road to Sheder is rocky, and along the way we passed sheep herders, camels, picturesque one-room stone houses and other homes shaped like wigwams, but constructed of what seemed to be layers of heavy cotton and tarpaulins. The camp itself is home to 11,500 refugees who have fled conflict and famine in Somalia and, with the support of the Ethiopian government and the international community, live with greater stability, but much poverty.
The camp and surrounding area have different types of homes, most made of mud, stone and swathes of cloth over the roof. As we drove up to the camp, we passed some refugees who looked weary as they moved about their business, but there were also many children who waved at our vehicle and eagerly awaited us, the new visitors in the camp.
My colleague Jennifer Schulte and I traveled to Sheder after spending a week meeting with UN, government and other officials in Addis Ababa to learn more about the situation of refugees—particularly adolescent girls—in the Jijiga region. In the city of Jijiga, we spent time with the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), learning the nuts and bolts of what services are provided for refugee girls and finding out what opportunities exist—if any—to allow these girls to gain the skills, knowledge and experience they need to become dynamic and confident women. We learned that the typical Somali refugee girl will face enormous pressure to drop out of school, to submit to female genital mutilation, to marry young and to perform domestic work in the camp or nearby settlements. Despite all the support that the Ethiopian government and the international community provide, there are many, many obstacles to girls achieving what we too often take for granted in North America. The ability to stay in school and learn, to remain free from harm and to choose their own partners and jobs are not at all givens for these girls.
When we arrived at Sheder, Jennifer and I were told that the girls had been waiting for us from the very start of their school day, ever since they were told that there were women coming who wanted to speak with them and learn about their lives. Accompanied by a local young Somali woman interpreter, we were ushered into a cinder block classroom where 10 girls, ages 10 to14, sat on plastic chairs, with their legs swinging and their big eyes following us. They were quiet as they followed the interpreter’s every word. Each girl wore a pristine white head scarf and a colorful long dress. They broke into big smiles and some giggled when we said that we were there to hear their opinions on what girls need, because girls’ opinions count.
After spending days listening to government representatives, UN officials and international aid workers describe the greatest needs of refugee adolescent girls, we heard from the girls themselves. Over the course of the next several days, girls conveyed—through conversations, photos and drawings—an enormous drive to move forward with their education and life aspirations. One said she wanted to become a doctor, and another, a physicist. We were impressed and moved by their courage and motivation to make these goals a reality.
Our visit to Ethiopia was the first of three field research trips for our new initiative focused on displaced adolescent girls. Next week, we will report on what the girls told us. Please stay tuned…