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  • Struggling to Make a Living in Ethiopia: Surviving in the Informal Economy

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    Ethiopia Somali Region Field Visit

    Food is scarce in Ethiopia, where most of the population lives in rural, drought-prone areas in a state of chronic poverty. In 2010, the Government of Ethiopia identified 5.2 million people in need of emergency food aid. Not surprisingly, this hunger crisis also impacts the thousands of refugees living just within Ethiopia’s borders.

    In the isolated eastern corner of Ethiopia, some 44,000 Somali refugees are scattered among four refugee camps, living in the arid heat on parched land. Most of these refugees survive on one meal a day and are dependent on humanitarian aid to meet their most basic needs. Over the years it has become clear that the aid just isn’t enough. Families are routinely forced to exchange food rations for other staples, such as medicine, school clothes and firewood for cooking. With no reliable source of income, families face difficult choices.

    Most host countries do not grant refugees the right to work, and Ethiopia is no different. As a result, refugees are pushed into working in the informal economy where the risk of exploitation and abuse is far greater—particularly for women and girls. In camps like Aw Barre and Sheder, which are far from local markets, families often send their daughters to work as live-in domestic servants. This is dangerous work for the girls, as they have no protection from their families or the law.

    Join Us in Support of the HELP Act (Humane Enforcement and Legal Protection for Separated Children Act)

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    Immigration enforcement has drastically increased in the United States over the last few years. And children have become victims of expanded detention and deportation policies that are carried out without adequate consideration of the consequences enforcement can have on family unity. One out of every twenty children in the U.S. faces the possibility of returning home to discover a parent has been detained or deported.

    Miguel, an eight-year-old U.S. citizen, came home from school one day to find his parents missing and his two-year-old brother alone. He didn’t know that his parents had been detained by U.S. immigration authorities and that they wouldn’t be coming home. So Miguel stayed home to take care of his brother—never knowing what happened to his mom and dad—for seven days before his grandmother arrived to help.

    While current enforcement policies do include some guidelines to protect children, these protections are by no means comprehensive or universal. As a result children—many of them U.S. citizens—have become especially vulnerable. Parents who are taken into immigration custody are rarely granted a phone call to make child care arrangements until they arrive at an immigration detention facility—sometimes days or even weeks after they were first apprehended. Miguel was home alone for so many days because of the simple lack of a policy guaranteeing his parents a phone call to arrange for someone to care for him.

    World Refugee Day: No Place Like Home

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    World Refugee Day 2010

    Reuters/Zohra Bensemra, courtesy www.alertnet.org

    The theme of this year’s World Refugee Day is “home.” Home refers to the many homes lost, destroyed, but also, hopefully, those returned to by the millions of refugees around the world who have been forced to flee due to conflict and human rights abuse. There are few things as violating as being torn or forced from one’s home, one’s corner of the world, one’s community and one’s personal possessions. Home defines us. It grounds us. It gives us a sense of place and is essential to our relationships with family, neighbors and community. It is where we feel safe. It is where we feel part of something bigger than ourselves. Our relationship with “home” is both communal and spatial and, many would say, even spiritual.

    While displaced, most refugees long for home—the routine, the safety, the communal networks and the physical space that they provide. But because the majority of refugees are displaced, on average, for seventeen years, going home even after conflicts end can be highly problematic. They often have little to go home to and even less to go home with. If we as the humanitarian community could ensure that during those many years of displacement they learn marketable skills, such as how to run a small business, construction, masonry and agricultural practices to earn an income, going home would no doubt be much less difficult. Refugees wouldn’t be sent home empty handed, but rather with cash in their pockets and skills in their hands—the very tools they need to restart their lives and rebuild their communities.

    We Must Safeguard Women Detainees against Sexual Assault

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    When I first visited the T. Don Hutto family detention facility in 2006 to monitor the treatment of the parents and children detained there I was appalled at what I found. Young children wore prison jumpsuits and played behind concertina wire on the days when they were allowed outside at all. Guards monitored their every movement and parents lived with the constant fear that should their children giggle too loud or run too fast, the family would be separated as a form of punishment. Hutto was a reflection of so many things that are wrong about immigration detention.

    In 2007, my organization, the Women's Refugee Commission, released a report, Halfway Home: Children in Immigration Custody detailing our findings at Hutto. It was soon followed by a lawsuit challenging the conditions in which children were detained. Finally, last fall, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) stopped detaining families at Hutto. Today there are no children inside the facility's walls. But Hutto, now home to female detainees and viewed as a model for immigration detention reform in the United States, has come under scrutiny once again – this time because a guard employed by Corrections Corporation of American (CCA, the private, for-profit company that operates the facility), has been fired for sexually assaulting multiple women inside their cells.

    "Grace Under Fire": Highlighting the Need of Reproductive Health Care in Crises

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    Lack of reproductive health care is a leading cause of death and disease among refugee and displaced women of reproductive age. Grace Under Fire is a powerful and inspiring documentary focused on promoting and improving access to life-saving reproductive health care in the war-torn eastern provinces of Democratic Republic of Congo.

    Microsoft Talks to Us About How Their KIND and Unlimited Potential Programs Help Improve the Lives of Women and Children

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    On May 6, the Women’s Refugee Commission presented Microsoft, our corporate honoree, with the 2010 Innovating for Change Voices of Courage Award. We recognized two exceptional Microsoft initiatives: Unlimited Potential and Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), the latter of which was formed in collaboration with UN High Commissioner for Refugees Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie.

    Before the event, we sat down with Pamela S. Passman, Corporate Vice President and Deputy General Counsel for Global Corporate Affairs at Microsoft, to discuss the two initiatives being recognized at our Voices of Courage Awards luncheon. We asked Pamela to tell us about the inspiration behind the initiatives, how they grew and the impact they’ve had on women and unaccompanied immigrant children worldwide.

    Deogratias Niyizonkiza: Where There is Health There is Hope

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    Deo attends a severely malnourished child on a home visit in Kigutu

    Deo Niyizonkiza was one of two refugees honored at the Women’s Refugee Commission 2010 Voices of Courage Awards held Thursday, May 6 in New York City. In the post below, Deo tells us about his organization Village Health Works and why it is important to provide health care to refugee women and children.

    Amalia Guzmán Molina: Working to Keep Immigrant Families Together

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    Amalia teaching parenting classes at Berendo Middle School

    We are excited to introduce you to Amalia Guzmán Molina, one of two refugees honored at our annual Voices of Courage Luncheon, which took place Thursday, May 6, in New York City.

    Amalia is an accomplished and revered advocate—not only in her community, but nationwide. In addition to founding Families of the Incarcerated, Amalia has written a book about her experience of being imprisoned and appeared in a documentary film about unaccompanied immigrant children in the U.S. Her post follows below.


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    Welcome to the launch of the Women's Refugee Commission Blog

    Many of you are familiar with our organization, and with the work we do. But for those of you who are not, the Women’s Refugee Commission was founded over 20 years ago as an expert resource and advocacy organization that monitors the care and protection of refugee women, children and young people. We draw attention to the needs of refugee women and children—especially those that are overlooked by humanitarian aid organizations worldwide.

    Today, we continue to advocate vigorously for laws, policies and programs that improve the lives and protect the rights of refugee and internally displaced women, children and young people.

    We look forward to sharing our work with you and encourage your questions and comments. In future posts, we will talk more in depth about our various programs and the findings we uncover through our work and research. Your interest and support truly can impact the lives of refugee women, children and young people around the world. Together we are working to ensure that they are safe, healthy and self-reliant.

    Please watch this message about the Women’s Refugee Commission’s work from our Executive Director, Carolyn Makinson.

    Thank you for joining us in this ongoing conversation!