It took three hours to cover the 60 miles from Gambella town to Pugnido Refugee Camp in western Ethiopia. The roads were somehow muddy, dusty and rutted simultaneously. Climbing down from the car, I could see the children peeking out at the group from behind their huts. Soon enough I was hard to miss, with 50 or so kids following me, clamoring to have their photos taken and see the finished picture. One little boy stuck by my side, a tiny bodyguard in a worn Manchester United jersey. Wave after wave of children materialized; I played soccer with some, ran down the road with others. Some children were clothed; others wore just saggy underwear; some were naked.
In fiscal year 2013, the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) provided the UN Refugee Agency with $30.1 million to offer protection and assistance for more than 400,000 refugees throughout Ethiopia, which includes potable water, latrines, emergency shelter, basic education, and the documentation necessary to collect food rations. Part of that funding helps support the 41,000 refugees at Pugnido, a camp that once held many of the “lost boys” of Sudan and which now hosts those fleeing inter-ethnic fighting in South Sudan.
Traveling as part of a team from Washington and Embassy Addis Ababa to monitor the progress of humanitarian programs, we also met with implementing partners and agencies, the local government, and refugees. Ninety percent of the residents at Pugnido are women and children; 65 percent are under the age of 18. Within the camp, more than 200 children are “unaccompanied,” having made the journey to Ethiopia without a parent. Thankfully, finding foster care via extended family or their wider community has not been the challenge it is in some other camps. The children seemed well cared for, nourished, and active; many displayed a mischievous streak that did not need translating! Agencies such as UNICEF, the International Rescue Committee, Norwegian Refugee Council, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Save the Children, the Ethiopian Agency for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA), and others have provided a safety net to allow these kids to thrive under difficult circumstances.
Walking around the camp, we talked with residents, many of whom invited us into their huts, called “tukuls.” An older woman, recently arrived at the camp, took my hands, said a blessing and hugged me as we talked about why she left South Sudan. She let me take her photo and smiled when she saw it, telling me through our interpreter how she used to be a "beautiful, large woman," a woman of means, but, because of the crisis in South Sudan, she had become frail and thin. We saw few adult men in the camp; residents said many had stayed home to tend to their land, or possibly to fight. Women told me that they didn't know what had happened to their husbands. Though everyone in the sprawling camp hopes it will one day be safe enough for them to return to South Sudan, all know that for the time being, it is funding from donors such as the United States, combined with the dedication of agencies on the ground, that keeps them alive.
Families shared their stories; children showed me the toy cars they had built with mud and sticks. Moms proudly held new babies, and kids tried to sneak a touch of my hair. Each time I raised my camera to take a picture, I was mobbed. It was harder than I thought getting back into the car for the long trek back to Gambella, after seeing children who, in so many ways, were like kids anywhere, like my own daughter, except they weren't, because kids aren't supposed to flee war. They shouldn’t have to witness its horrors, though, according to statistics, more than half of all refugees worldwide are children. Upon returning home, it has been hard to delete the photos that were a bit blurry, because all of the children had shown such joy in being photographed. Even if their pictures did not make the final album, the memories they gave me will remain.
About the Author: Christine Getzler Vaughan serves as a Program Officer for the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration.