|“I believe passionately in the work Jesuit Refugee Service is doing around the world to help people who are just searching for a decent, better life” ~ Emmylou Harris|
Ms. Harris joined Jesuit Refugee Service/USA Director Armando Borja, Board Chair David McNulty, Vice Chair Margaret Green-Rauenhorst, and JRS International Development Group members Margaret Chin-Wolf and Elaine Teo on a visit to JRS projects in Ethiopia to learn more about refugee issues in the Horn of Africa.
“One of the government of Ethiopia’s officials explained (the open door policy) as a ‘policy of peace.’ It’s a policy I wish more governments were able to assume,” said Margaret Green-Rauenhorst.
The JRS center in Addis Ababa provides access to computers and a library for study, English language and computer training courses, workshops and group counseling. An emergency needs program at the center provides rent and food support for newly arrived refugees.
“Under the emergency needs program we provide financial assistance, and also basic assistance like food; and we have also medical referrals. We distribute blankets, rice and oil,” said RCC Project Director Hannah Petros.
Singer/songwriter and JRS Goodwill Ambassador Emmylou Harris sits in on an English class for refugees at the JRS Ethiopia Refugee Community Center in Addis Ababa.
Jesuit Refugee Service/USA's Global Education Initiative Coordinator Gail Griffith looks at the work of students in a computer class
at the JRS Ethiopia Refugee Community Center in Addis Ababa.
JRS Goodwill Ambassador Emmylou Harris visits with urban refugees in Addis Ababa. The woman and her daughter fled the war in Yemen for safety in Ethiopia, but now live in a one-room structure only large enough for a small bed and bench. The young woman is a student, and is determined to continue her education.
The center also provides a daycare service so parents are able to leave their children in a safe and nurturing environment as they try to find informal work, meet UNHCR for asylum or resettlement interviews, or attend classes.
“One young woman (at the RCC) was explaining that she was here with her mother, but that her mother was going to have to go back to Eritrea this week, and she would be all alone. She started to cry; it was so moving and so sad,” said Mrs. Green-Rauenhorst. “Yet I also looked around and realized that she would have the JRS community center to find company and support, and that was amazing to me. That out of all of this misery, she would find something to keep her going.”
After spending time with staff and refugees in Addis Ababa, the study trip continued north to visit JRS projects in two refugee camps.
According to UNHCR, more than 36,500 refugees from Eritrea were in camps in the Shire region of northern Ethiopia as of April 30, 2016. UNHCR reports people flee Eritrea primarily due to the practice of indefinite conscription into national or military service (this particularly places a burden on youth who would like to continue their education); arbitrary detention — including torture and inhumane treatment while in detention; and restrictions on freedom of movement, expression and religion.
In the Shire region, JRS provides services in two camps: Adi Harush and Mai Aini. Mai Aini is home to nearly 11,000 refugees, while 9,000 live in Adi Harush.
Newly arrived refugees from Eritrea at the Endabaguna Refugee Reception Center, about 20 kilometers from the city of Shire. The center is where newly arrived refugees are first interviewed as their status is determined. A nearby shelter houses unaccompanied minors — the majority of refugees in the area are Eritrean, and a significant percentage of those are unaccompanied children — until a safe spot can be found for them in one of the refugee camps in the north.
JRS International Development Group members Margaret Chin-Wolf and Elaine Teo visit the JRS project in Adi Harush refugee camp in northern Ethiopia.
Emmylou Harris listens as JRS Mai Aini project director Fanule Abebe explains the the music program for young refugees at the camp in northern Ethiopia.
Young refugees in the Jesuit Refugee Service music class at Mai Aini refugee camp in northern Ethiopia.
“One thing that struck me about the camps is the number of young people in those camps, from little boys and girls, to kids well into their teens and twenties,” said David McNulty.
Seventy-five percent of the population of the Shire camps is youth under the age of 25, and 35% of the registered population are children 17 years old and younger — and 70% of those are unaccompanied. JRS is working with the young refugees to help alleviate the negative aspects of camp life and provide hope for their future.
“Whatever hardships that (the refugees) had gone through to reach these camps, there just seemed to be so much joy, and innocence and hope,” said Ms. Harris.
A grant from the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration enables the JRS programs in Mai Aini and Adi Harush. JRS programs at the camps include psychosocial counseling to help refugees cope with the stress of their displacement, or more serious trauma they may have experienced.
“We provided about 18 weeks of counseling to a woman who had suffered gender-based violence, and her psychological condition has dramatically improved,” said Hiwot Ali, the JRS counseling coordinator at Mai Aini.
JRS/USA Board chair Dave McNulty plays "thumb wars" with a young refugee at Mai Aini refugee camp in northern Ethiopia, June 8, 2016.
Emmylou Harris tunes her guitar before singing for refugees at Mai Aini refugee camp in northern Ethiopia.
Adi Harush refugee camp in northern Ethiopia is home to many unaccompanied refugee children from neighboring Eritrea.
Sports activities — intramural games and sports officiating classes — are organized in soccer, basketball and volleyball. Workshops in music and drama are made available as well. These after school programs both help young refugees cope with the tedium of camp life and socialize with one another, strengthening their social and community bonds.
“The (staff) people we met (in the camps and in the urban program) were so committed, and committed in a loving way for the refugees. This is not simply a job for them,” said Mr. McNulty. “They’ve truly given of themselves.”
“I had been warned when I came here by professionals that I might have a negative reaction, overwhelmed by the despair of it all. I know there are still terrible conditions, a lot has to be done, but there’s so much hope, there’s so much promise. It really affected me in a positive way,” said Ms. Harris.
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Story and photographs by Jesuit Refugee Service/USA Communications Director Christian Fuchs