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  • Urban Refugees: Ingenuity essential to making ends meet in Nairobi

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    Photo by Women's Refugee Commission

    I stepped off of a teeming street into Aamina’s* apartment, where the floury, slightly sour scent of injera lingered in the air. A round stove, a small TV, and a set of bunk beds lined the teal-gray walls of the one-room flat that Aamina shares with her two children and two employees. The tiny, crowded space also serves as Aamina’s place of business. She bakes injera, the spongy Ethiopian flatbread, to sell in her neighborhood.

    Aamina came to Eastleigh, a sprawling slum in Nairobi, Kenya, after her husband was killed by the government in Ethiopia. Fearing for her family’s safety, Aamina escaped across the border with her mother and her two young children. She decided to settle in the city because she feared that Kenya’s refugee camps lacked economic opportunities and the health services her ailing mother depends on. But like millions of other refugees living in urban environments today, she struggles to provide for her family, relying on whatever means and skills she can.

    Making ends meet is often difficult and dangerous for refugees living in cities, where paying rent and buying food can be a daily struggle and finding work is complicated.  Most host countries do not allow refugees to work legally, so people find themselves forced to take jobs that pay “under the table.” Refugees with no legal protection risk exploitation and abuse by their employers. Even refugees like Aamina who manage to start their own small business face severe challenges.

    Voices from Dadaab: the Daily Struggle to Cook a Meal

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    Photo by Mariangela Bizzarri

    This summer I traveled to the Dadaab region in Kenya, where three refugee camps—among the largest in the world—host nearly 300,000 refugees.

    The camps sit just 60 miles from the Somali border, in a region that has suffered extreme drought over the last few years. As the conflict in Somalia worsens, the number of Somalis seeking refuge in Kenya has steadily grown. Today, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates 4,500 Somalis arrive in the camps each month.
    In the camp, I met refugee women who talked with me about their struggle to find enough firewood to cook for their families. Though the narrative that follows is a composite of several individual stories, it presents an accurate picture of a “typical” Somali refugee woman living in Dadaab.  

    After my husband was killed I knew we had to leave. Somalia had become too dangerous for my three children and me, so we escaped across the border into Kenya and made our way to Dadaab. Ifo, the refugee camp where we now live, is crowded, and more families like mine are arriving every day. I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to go home.

    I want to give my children a good life. I want to make sure they have enough to eat, and materials for school, but there is no way for me to make money in the camp. I want to start my own business someday, but right now I have to make do with the food and supplies the aid agencies give me.

    Resolution 1325: 10 Years Later, A Lot Remains to be Done

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    This week I met up with Thelma Awori, who spoke at the Open Debate and addressed the UN Security Council on behalf of civil society. Thelma is the director of the Sirleaf Market Women's Fund, which supports empowering market women in Liberia. Thelma comes from Liberia and has not only seen the horrors of war firsthand, but can also attest to the tragic consequences when women affected by conflict are not involved in the peace processes that determine their futures. As we walked to the Open Debate together, she reminded me of where we were 10 years ago when Resolution1325 was first adopted.

    In the years leading up to the passage of this important resolution, the world had witnessed a decade of wars that had tremendous impact on women and children. Over 800,000 people were slaughtered in Rwanda, thousands of women were systematically raped in Bosnia and as a result of these horrific conflicts, millions of people were displaced—the majority of whom were women and children.

    Women always bear the brunt of war. And so, it is all the more critical that they be heard in all aspects of negotiating peace. In October of 2000, it was clear that the Security Council was long overdue in recognizing women as integral and invaluable ambassadors for peace.

    Women Are Peacebuilders

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    Shreen Abdul Saroor's speech as a 2008 Voices of Courage Honoree
    Shreen Abdul Saroor's speech as a 2008 Voices of Courage Honoree

    Shreen Abdul Saroor grew up knowing nothing but the violence that has pulled Sri Lanka apart for decades. In 1990, her family was forced to flee Mannar Island in a small boat when Tamil militants expelled all Muslims from the Northern Province. Shreen’s experience inspired her to form two organizations for women affected by conflict.

    The Mannar Women’s Development Foundation helps Muslim and Tamil women displaced by violence, and Mannar Women for Human Rights and Democracy seeks to bring international attention to sexual violence in the war-torn areas of the north and east, where hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people live.

    In Shreen’s speech as a 2008 Voices of Courage Honoree, she stressed the devastating impact of armed conflict on women in her country:

    “The safety of women and girls has been one of the casualties of the long war in Sri Lanka,” she explained. “Soldiers and members of para-military groups rape women with impunity. Rape has been used as a tool to torture political detainees.”

    Far too often, women affected by armed conflict have to struggle to make their voices heard. As Shreen explained, women have an essential role to play in building peace:

    “During [the] 2002 peace process in Sri Lanka there was not a single woman at the main negotiating table and if at all there will be a peace process in my country we need to have 50 percent women at the main table,” Shreen said. “With the help of the Women’s Refugee Commission and other dedicated organizations I have great hope that these ambitions could be achieved.”

    Now, More Than Ever, We Need the United Nations

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    Women displaced by violence in Darfur, Sudan

    This blog post was written and orignally posted by Gerald Martone, the director of humanitarian affairs for our affilitate organization The International Rescue Committee.

    On this day in 1945, fifty nations gathered in San Francisco to finalize the Charter of the United Nations. Little did they know that the United Nations would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize – seven times.

    Although the United Nations offers no quick fixes, it is one place where all nations of the world can come together, set international standards, and take collective action. 

    The treaties and international agreements brokered by the United Nations make the world go round. The work of the UN has improved the international cooperation needed to allow ships and planes to cross borders; to regulate telecommunications, broadcasting, and postal service; to oversee international trade and labor laws; to coordinate response to epidemics; and to enforce court judgments across borders.

    The United Nations helps to advance human rights and fundamental freedoms for all people, improve the standards of living worldwide, promote social progress, resolve conflict and prevent security threats, address climate change, and assist refugees and people uprooted by war and disasters. There is simply no other single global institution with a mandate as broad as this.

    Read more: "Now More Than Ever, We Need the United Nations"

    Photo Essay: On the Ground in Nairobi's Slums

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    This summer, our Livelihoods team traveled to Nairobi, Kenya, to meet with refugees who are struggling to piece together a living in one of Nairobi’s largest slums, Eastleigh.

    More than half of the world’s refugees now live in urban areas, and many are forced to look for work in the informal economy to provide for their families.

    The international community has thus far done little to address the needs of refugees living in urban areas. UNHCR’s revised policy on urban refugees recognizes the need to expand services that will better protect the growing number of refugees living in urban centers like Eastleigh.

    View our slideshow to learn more and to meet a few of the refugees who shared their stories with us.

    Immigration Detention Reforms Are More Than Just Window Dressing

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    One year ago today, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), an agency of the Department of Homeland Security, released a report written by Dr. Dora Schriro, then Planning Director for ICE’s Office of Detention Policy and Planning. Dr. Schriro’s report provided an unprecedented review and evaluation of the U.S. immigration detention system, outlining key recommendations needed to achieve reform.

    We met repeatedly with Dr. Schriro while she conducted research for the report, sharing our observations and stories from the many detained women we’ve met with over the years. In the past year, ICE has followed many of the report’s recommendations, taking significant steps toward creating policies that will achieve reform. Our recommendations and guidance helped shape and inform these policies.

    A few notable accomplishments include establishing a detainee locator system so that family and friends can determine where loved ones are being detained; ending detention of immigrant families at the infamous T. Don Hutto detention facility in Texas; and developing a risk assessment tool that will help ICE officials make smarter decisions about whom they choose to detain.

    Many of the reforms, however, are now on hold because critics are accusing the agency of being soft on criminals. But the truth is, at the time that Dr. Schriro wrote her report, only 11 percent of detained immigrants had histories of violent crime. We—like Dr. Schriro—believe that most detainees held in the system do not need to be held in detention as they pose no threat.

    Introduction of the Comprehesive Immigration Reform Act of 2010

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    Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) have introduced an important new legislation on immigration reform, the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2010. This legislation would prevent the separation of children from their parents, improve conditions of care for individuals in immigration custody, including children, and reduce the unnecessary use of detention for asylum seekers and other vulnerable migrants, including families.

    Read our statement here.

    New Global Initiative Will Provide Clean Cookstoves for Refugee Women

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    I met a Somali woman in the Ifo refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya who summed up the problem: “You cannot divorce food from fuel,” she said, “they are completely interlinked. One-hundred bags of food is useless without firewood.” For millions of families around the world, cooking fuel is a critical, daily concern, with serious health and safety implications.

    Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put this issue in the spotlight this week when she announced the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, which aims to provide 100 million fuel-efficient stoves to people in developing countries by 2020. These stoves will make a crucial difference in the lives of the people who receive them—especially those who have been displaced by armed conflict and natural disasters.

    At the Women’s Refugee Commission, we have been dedicated for the last five years to making sure that displaced women have both safe access to cooking fuel and safe stoves to cook with. Women and girls risk rape and sexual assault when they leave the relative safety of refugee camps to gather firewood, which they use to cook the food provided by relief agencies – usually rice, grains or beans, but always items that have to be cooked in order to be eaten. As nearby trees are chopped down to use as firewood, women and girls must walk farther and farther to collect cooking fuel, increasing their vulnerability and causing massive environmental degradation. Burning wood on open stoves also produces toxic smoke, exposing the women and children who spend hours near the fires to respiratory and other illnesses, causing countless burns and house fires and spewing black carbon into the atmosphere.

    Stop Violence - Women Can Wait No Longer

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    One of every three women will be abused in her lifetime. The International Violence Against Women Act, now before Congress, would put women’s rights at the forefront of U.S. foreign policy.
    Photo: Democratic Republic of Congo, courtesy Kevin Sites

    This blog post was written and orignally posted by Elisabeth Roesch, the gender-based violence advocacy officer for our affilitate organization The International Rescue Committee.

    The countdown has begun for Congress to act on a bill that would help harness U.S. efforts to confront the biggest moral outrage of our time – violence against women and girls. At a Congressional panel in support of the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA) last week, the sentiment was clear – now is the time. Women can wait no longer.

    The briefing on Thursday morning brought together a star panel of activists and leaders, including the actress Samantha Mathis, an impassioned advocate for women’s rights; Rose Mapendo, a courageous and outspoken refugee activist from the Democratic Republic of Congo; and Ritu Sharma, president and co-founder of Women Thrive Worldwide.