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A woman does her family laundry outside the wood and tin dwelling where she lives in the "Little Mogadishu" neighborhood of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, May 20, 2011. The area is home to tens of thousands of refugees from Somalia. (Christian Fuchs — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)
By Christian Fuchs
Jesuit Refugee Service/USA

(Washington, D.C.) August 17, 2011 — The Jesuit Refugee Service Emergency Needs Program in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, serves the needs of asylum-seekers and refugees from Somalia and elsewhere in Africa who seek to escape famine, war and persecution in their homelands. The program was established in 1997, initially as a parish outreach program, and became the ENP in 2004.

"The Emergency Needs Program is mainly for asylum seekers, for those who are newcomers to Ethiopia," said JRS Ethiopia Country Director Seyoum Asfaw. "The newcomers sometimes come directly to JRS, and sometimes they are referred to us by the local parish. Sometimes the Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs, the government body concerning refugees, refers them to JRS, and UNHCR also refers these refugees to JRS."

As of Dec. 31, 2010, there were more than 168,000 refugees officially registered in Ethiopia, with more than 160,000 of those from Somalia. In May 2011, there were another 25,000 unregistered Somali refugees in Addis Ababa alone. These numbers do not include the thousands more who have fled Ethiopia in the wake of the drought that has gripped the Horn of Africa this summer. 

Years of conflict and consecutive droughts have displaced nearly two million Somalis. As of July 20, 2011, more than 120,000 Somalis had fled into Kenya and Ethiopia, with as many as 3,000 refugees arriving daily into the two countries. 

"They need some money just to settle where to sleep. They don’t have anything. Also for food, they don’t have anything, and we provide them emergency financial assistance," said ENP Project Director Hanna Petros.

"We are giving them only one time assistance. That is just to cover their immediate needs only. Food, shelter, clothes," she added.

During May of this year, an average of 10 to 20 Somali refugees were arriving each day to the JRS Emergency Needs Program office on a dirt road in Addis Ababa. 

"There are days we have a massive numbers of people. I receive them in the reception (area), and I screen them," said social worker Meron Mengesha. 

"We give them only one time assistance. There are people who come for second time assistance, third time assistance. We have to identify genuine cases and people who don’t qualify for second time assistance," she said.

"After screening, I take a bit of their story and pass it to the other social worker. He deeply investigates their case, interviews them and pays a home visit. Weekday afternoons we have home visits, except for Friday," said Ms. Mengesha.

The home visit is to confirm the refugee’s story, to ensure that they live where they say they live and to determine how long they have lived there. The social worker conducting the home visit interviews landlords and others to confirm dates and family size.

One time financial assistance provided to a single refugee is 600 birr ($35), and for a family it is 800 birr ($47). If the family is extremely destitute or there are many children involved, the family may receive up to 1000 birr ($58). Those cases are rare. Rent for a refugee will not be less than about $25 per month, and the conditions of the dwellings are extremely poor. Food and clothing must also be purchased, as the refugees have trekked from their home countries with only what they are able to carry.

"I think the main challenge is the living situation. Even for Ethiopians the price of rent is … skyrocketing. Refugees don’t have any means, any income. They have to rent a house, they have to buy their food and food prices at this time are very high. They have medical problems. I think they are living with in a very harsh, very difficult situation," said Mr. Asfaw.

"If they are newcomers," said Mrs. Petros, the assistance "will last up to three weeks only, the 800 birr, not more than that."

Undocumented refugees are in a more precarious position than documented refugees, as they have been living in Addis with no access to financial resources of any kind, except what they can beg or borrow from fellow refugees. 

"From shops they take credit, they eat with credit, sometimes they pay the house rent by begging from others," said Mrs. Petros. In those cases the financial assistance they receive from JRS is essentially already spent, as they must repay their debts.

"The asylum seekers are supposed to get one-time assistance. Apart from them we have refugees coming from camps, we have refugees who have pending cases, we have refugees who do not have assistance. These refugees are coming and asking for assistance," said Mrs. Petros. 

"Refugees who are coming from camps need assistance because UNHCR and ARRA don’t cover their expenses while they stay here. They are hungry, they are sick, some of them die. We cannot afford (to provide) assistance to everybody that is applying for it. That is a challenge, because we cannot meet their needs."

"As you may have heard, Ethiopia is a very poor country, yet still Ethiopia is receiving refugees. It’s a challenge, refugees have many problems," said Mr. Asfaw.

"No one (is turned away from the door) without talking to a social worker. Especially when I’m around," said Ms. Mengesha. "At the end of the conversation I’ll always tell them that it’s OK to come back, it’s a place where they can share their problems, even if there is no financial assistance they can just come and talk to me." 

"Many of these refugees coming from abroad also have medical problems when they arrive, because they have passed (through) several hassles and difficulties," said Mr. Asfaw.

"When they arrive here, they are very weak, they have nothing, they’ve run out of money and everything," said Ms. Mengesha. "I talk with them, I ask them their problems and take their age, names, marital status, whatever is needed, (and then we send them to a clinic) and we pay the medical costs."

Accompaniment is an essential element of the mission and methodology of Jesuit Refugee Service. To accompany means to be a companion. Jesuits are companions of Jesus, and wish to be companions of those with whom he preferred to be associated: the poor and the outcast. Toward that end, the Emergency Needs Office also has a pastoral program for refugees

"It is not preaching but a form of discussion. It is considered like group counseling, where they talk, they give us their own testimony, and we hear. Each one can support each other, from hearing one another’s history. They will be supported by hearing the other one’s testimony," said Mrs. Petros.

"This is the program the refugees like most. This program is once a week, and the refugees are mixed. Some of them are asylum-seekers or pending case refugees, the others are urban refugees who have got refugee status." All refugees are welcome, regardless of religion.

"It’s very helpful psychologically to those who have been frustrated, tortured in their (country of origin) and women who have been raped. This is the place where mostly they are consoled," said Mrs. Petros. 

"They know more (about) each other here. They exchange telephone numbers, and then if someone is sick they go to visit each other. They pray for the sick refugee. (The pastoral program) is a socialization place for them, where they express what they feel," she added.

"After they are resettled abroad to different countries, they write us, they send us an email saying 'please do not stop that program for refugees, the pastoral program. We are very happy about JRS, especially the pastoral program. That is the place where I was listened to and heard, and I cannot forget it helped me a lot.'"

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