Veiled Majority: Life for in Women in Djibouti's Refugee Camps

Friday, January 9, 2004
Laura M. Bisaillon
Eastern Africa

The 30 or so Somali women and girls gathered near the Holl-Holl camp community garden, where visitors routinely leave with armfuls of papayas and mangoes, cannot read or interpret a map of their native country, Somalia. When presented with a wall-sized, coloured topographic map of the Horn of Africa, with Somalia being at the far right, bordered by the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean, their eyes widen.

The attention span of most of the women leaders present is quite short. When the map makes its appearance within an arms distance in front of them, the women fall silent. Curiosity is roused. The contours of the mountain range running east to west along the Gulf are what provide the women with some visual clues as to where their native villages are found. Guided by my quietly eloquent 22-year old bilingual interpreter, Zahra Mouhoumed Moussa, who gracefully translates from Somali to English and vice versa, our communication flows with an agreeable cadence.

Community and Confidence Building

UN Volunteer Laura Bisaillon from Canada with Somali women refugees in Djibouti's Holl Holl refugee camp.Their fingers initially glide tentatively across the map surface from the Djibouti border in the west to the north-eastern tip of Somaliland where the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean meet at Africa's most eastern point. The women keenly search for their community names which include: Waqooyi Galbeed in the north west of Somaliland, Seylac and Lughaya, along the Gulf of Aden, and Boorame and Gabiley, adjacent to the Ethiopian border. A minority of refugee women hail from Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia. These refugees fled Somalia because of armed conflict and internal civil and political strife that erupted in late 1990. Progressively, excitement grows as a result of this visual exercise, and the women are pleased, if not mystified, Zahra tells me, to have seen their villages in colour on a map. I explain the geographical configuration of the Horn of Africa, elaborating on the spatial relationships between region's five countries: Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Sudan.

Djibouti is home to approximately 24 000 Somali refugees and a limited number of Ethiopian refugees in two camps at Ali Adde and Holl-Holl, south of the capital, Djibouti-City. The camps are adjacent to villages housing approximately 1 000 and 4 000 inhabitants, are located 119 km and 50 km, respectively from the city. In addition to the sedentary population that resides in the camps, nomads from the surrounding mountains populate the area.

George Yongo and Abdou Dango, two UNV Repatriation and Programme Officers assist the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in its repatriation phase. The two camps in Djibouti will eventually be dismantled due to their dwindling populations. Beginning in January 2004, groups of Somali refugees will gradually be returning to Somalialand. UNHCR Djibouti aims to repatriate approximately 1,000 persons per month in 2004. This being the case, community service planning over the past seven months has been challenging and efforts now focus on what lies ahead.

Age, gender, and clan relations determine the social hierarchy which in turn strongly influence dynamics within the camps. Almost all refugees here are of Islamic faith. The male elders are said to have been traditional leaders. Historically, men have been the breadwinners, though currently in Somaliland, women are the primary income earners and hold the family purse strings. Women are responsible for domestic activities such as cooking and collection of firewood and water. There is little opportunity for women to engage in activities other than subsistence, though a growing number of young women are interested in health training opportunities offered by the UNHCR health partner.

Two halves, two solitudes?

The complexion of the two camps is quite different. There are stark differences between the two halves of the same camp as the Holl-Holl, with refugee population exclusively of Somali extract, and by contrast Ali Adde, with two distinct groups of refugees. Ninety percent Somali and just ten percent Ethiopian. The cultural differences became immediately clear. For example, Quartier J, the Ethiopian Quarter, is highly organised and very clean. Careful consideration is given to aesthetics, landscaping, community and individual comfort. Quality of life in the camps does not change according to the nationality of the female refugee. That is, Somali and Ethiopian women agree that their lives are characterised by monotony and repetition.

Investigations relative to the future plans of the Somali women revealed that they are likely to adopt a sedentary lifestyle in either Somaliland or Somalia. In contrast to their Somali counterparts, Ethiopian refugees are more formally educated and many were urbanites before seeking refugee status in Djibouti. There is a certain reticence for the communities to work together mainly because there is no history of collaboration between the two groups who are (and who view themselves as such) culturally and ethnically distinct. What's more, there is a physical separation of the two segments of the refugee population that serves to reinforce and accentuate cleavages.

Clear Articulation of Needs

From July to September 2003, UNHCR Community Services engaged in extensive fieldwork in Djibouti's camps. Efforts focused on analysing the situation, working with groups of women and vulnerable persons to collect qualitative data, and identifying needs and skills. The goal of these activities was to design a strategic plan for community development based on specific, realistic and mutually agreed upon actions. Djibouti's first Community Services Action Plan was presented in mid-September.

Women clearly articulated their needs. They wish to live well and improve the lives of their children. They therefore seek basic literacy courses for illiterate adult women refugees; continuing education training, including 'self-awareness' (reproductive health and self-protection) for women refugees in their late teens and early twenties; and vocational skills training, specifically tailoring, to provide avenues for current and future income generating activities. There is also interest in continuing education training for camp teachers (who are refugee youth).

The goal of the CSAP is to increase refugee self-reliance through a comprehensive and sustainable initiative that puts refugees at the centre of their own development. In the process, girls, adolescent and mature women become educated, qualified, and gain self-confidence and leadership skills. Vulnerable persons also come to play a more central role in the refugee communities. The provision of new life skills, while focussing on the enhancement of refugee dignity and sense of self-worth, is also an essential component. Decreasing refugee dependency on aid agencies is also a key goal. The objectives of the CSAP are to find durable solutions to observed problems; train women to be responsible actors in their development and growth; employ a participatory approach towards programming; and, intervene swiftly and with concrete action based on solid preparation.

Community Services is preparing to collaborate in cross-border initiatives to ease the transition for women and their families as they prepare to return to Somaliland in the next few months. A number of successful projects and programmes in Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia provide encouragement and opportunities for co-operation.