(Dollo Ado, Ethiopia) April 24, 2012 – My first experience with refugees was in Mai-Aini Refugee Camp in northwest Ethiopia. I worked with Jesuit Refugee Service as a Sports and Recreational Activities Officer there for just under a year. Eighty percent of the camp residents were young, male Eritrean refugees, most of whom had fled their country for political reasons. The life-affirming challenges I met there prepared me for my current role in Dollo Ado, Ethiopia.
A tripartite mission
I found out the hard way how challenging it can be to work with refugees. I had heard about refugees before but did not really understand what it meant to be one. Their demands and needs were hard to cope with against a backdrop of ever-limited resources. As an individual, I often felt powerless.
At first, I felt misplaced in such a demanding job. I found it hard to see how I could ever meet the many requests from refugees. Not anymore. Today I have realized that patience, understanding and, perseverance are the keys to every challenge. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine how I was able to go through all those experiences, but I managed.
Refugees often simply need somebody to listen to them, be with them, and give them hope. I realized I could offer those things without any cost, and I soon noticed that the refugees themselves had a great potential that needed to be harnessed. Their dramas, plays and art amazed me. They were quick learners, and I was moved by their taste, intelligence and creativity. They seemed so flexible, adaptable and well prepared for change. This unforgettable experience gave me inspiration and enthusiasm, and it has become my motivation to work with refugees to this day.
A new challenge in Dollo Ado
A year on, and I can say that sharing my time and skills with refugees has taught me the most worthwhile lesson so far in my work life: To do my best whenever I am given the opportunity, irrespective of the challenges. I am now following this lesson in my new role as Youth Program Coordinator, working with Somali refugees in Melkadida Refugee Camp, Dollo Ado.
The Somali refugees were forced to flee their homeland because of political insecurity, violence and prolonged drought. Their situation seemed even more challenging when compared to Mai-Aini, and despite my resolve not to despair, I found myself more pessimistic than ever. However my experiences in Mai-Aini quickly reminded me not to ‘judge a book by its cover.’ I was then able to find the courage and motivation to become more optimistic.
The hope and enthusiasm that Somali youth demonstrate continues to touch me on a daily basis. My relationship with them is central in order to keep the flame alive. I’ve found that no one, no matter how vulnerable their circumstance, is without hope. People possess great inner resources and resilience.
A football match of hope
I saw proof of this resilience during the closing ceremony of the youth football league in Melkadida on 20 March 2012. It was ‘D-day’ for Melkadida Premier League as it was the final match between the refugee youth and the host community. Seeing the energy with which the youth celebrated the occasion was a turning point in my life with refugees.
The youth demonstrated the ability of communities to build relationships and heal from the trauma of war through sports. They invested so much time and energy in making the occasion a real success, and in the end they were all real winners. What started as a search for goals to win the coveted trophy of the tournament, became the desire, hunger and aspirations of the youth for hope and peace. This one activity, which required very few financial resources, marks the beginning of the walk to real healing.
The transformative power of sports and recreation
My vision is to expand the range of recreation activities at Melkadida to meet the diverse needs and interests of all refugees, and to make them inclusive to everyone (boys, girls, adolescents, men and women). Activities such as volleyball, drama and music are an engaging means of transformation, and help refugees on their quest for peace. We can no longer underestimate the power of recreational activities to bring young people together.
These young refugees have taught me lessons about commitment, strength and desire. Their zeal to play and their ambition to excel are driving forces that will help mould them into responsible future leaders. My experiences have led me to believe that youth development activities should be a tenet in all programming for refugees.
My work has given me a new understanding of the role of sports in the lives of young refugees. I’ve learned it can make a big difference, and it continues to do so in Melkadida.
by Abraham Alemis, Youth Program Coordinator, Dollo Ado, Ethiopia
Jesuit Refugee Service 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 programs at the camp. JRS has been working in Mai-Aini Refugee Camp since February 2010. The focus here is on psychosocial programs and sports, music and drama activities for mainly Eritrean refugees.