Ethiopia: Still going strong
17 May 2012

Women in Melkadida camp, Dollo Ado, can choose to take JRS adult literacy classes and attend counselling training. Christian Fuchs/JRS
With the support of the widows in the JRS support and counselling group, Sofia is slowly picking up the little pieces of her life and going from strength to strength.

Dollo Ado, 6 June 2012 - Firkite Tarekegn, Jesuit Refugee Service Psychosocial Programme Officer in Dollo Ado, Ethiopia, spoke with a member of one of the JRS counselling groups. He shares her story below.

Sofia* is a Somali refugee living in Melkadida refugee camp, Dollo Ado District in southeast Ethiopia. Like many other refugees in this camp, she is faced with a mountain of challenges. A mother of six children, life does not come easy for her, and this is compounded by the fact that she recently lost her husband.

On top of the normal daily life of feeding, dressing and sheltering her children, she is still struggling to come to terms with trauma from her experiences of war in Mogadishu, Somalia. The war caused the death of her husband and two children. Although she herself survived, her life was shattered and she still relives the experience of the bomb on an almost daily basis.

Traveling in fear

After the death of her family members, Sofia made the difficult decision to leave Mogadishu and travel to Dollo Ado. In addition to the haunting memories and fear of war, the famine ravaging the country was an incentive to move. Due to inter-clan conflicts, the majority of people in the country were unable to do any kind of agricultural production and so food was very difficult to find.

Although the decision to leave Mogadishu was clear, it was not simple to execute. Not only was it an expensive venture, it was also extremely risky. The cost of transport alone was higher than Sofia expected (one million Somali shillings, equivalent to around $600), and the routes themselves were not safe.

Dominated by thugs who violently looted travelers, there was a high risk of meeting rebel groups during the journey. Recent attacks on public transport systems that had left many dead and injured, meant that Sofia and her family traveled in constant fear. Sofia has one child who suffers a serious health condition - the challenge of traveling with him was an added weight on her mind as she tried to ensure he received his regular medication during the journey.

Arrival at last

After a journey lasting around three weeks, Sofia and her family finally arrived in Ethiopia. She and her children first arrived in Yubo, a transit camp, where they spent two solid weeks receiving food and shelter from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the Ethiopian Agency for Refugees and Returnee Affairs (ARRA). Their journey had been characterised by long periods of hunger and so the first priority was nutrition for the children.

Later, she and her children were transferred to Melkadida refugee camp where she is currently settled alongside the 40,000 other Somali refugees who reside there.

At peace but with lingering trauma

Although Sofia is now in a more peaceful place, she still has many stresses - as a refugee, as a widow and also in dealing with her own feelings of guilt and frustration for not being able to protect her family in Somalia.

The assistance she receives is just a drop in the ocean as she has many needs which cannot all be taken care of by the humanitarian agencies. "I must find other ways to cope," she says.

At times she feels powerless to meet the expectations of her children. She would like to get married again but she is not sure that a man would accept to be a father to all her children. "Without denial, I must say some of my nights are sleepless" she says as she narrates her experiences of intense nightmares.

New hope through counselling

Her opportunity to regain hope in life came when she was referred for counselling with JRS by one of the zone leaders (the camp is divided into 20 zones for logistics).

At first, she did not feel like sharing her problems with anyone. However over time, with the support of the other widows in the group, she became more accepting of the idea and started to see the benefits.

She now recommends counselling for anyone with psychological and emotional turmoil. She says counselling has helped her have a clearer perspective on life and her only regret is not starting it sooner. It has helped her gain some acceptance of her situation and an awareness of the strength of her inner resilience.

She is making very positive changes and has joined the JRS adult literacy programme in order to further her education. She sees education as a tool for progress and a solution to ignorance, poverty and disease, especially amongst refugees. She has also been elected the zonal representative for the women refugees in her zone - a real achievement for a person who has been through so much.

Sofia is grateful to JRS for helping her regain hope. To her, life had stopped making sense after the experiences she had gone through. With the support of the widows in the JRS support and counselling group, she is slowly picking up the little pieces of her life and going from strength to strength.

* Not 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 implementing comprehensive education and psychosocial programmes at the camp.