Young Refugees Use Their Talents and Energy to Help Others
Roots & Shoots was founded in Tanzania in 1992 by Jane Goodall. The renowned primatolgist developed the program with the idea that young people, when informed and empowered, can make a difference in the world. Her vision was guided by three concerns—people, animals and the environment. Volunteers are encouraged to participate in environmental and community activities by designing their own projects.Learning the Value of Volunteering
Shimelba Refugee Camp, home to 13,000 Eritrean refugees, is situated in a hot, dusty landscape just over the Ethiopian border. The camp, established in 2004, has seen a steady influx of arrivals, mostly Tigrignas and, to a lesser extant, Kunama, farming people whose traditional land straddles both sides of the Ethiopian-Eritrean border.
Two years ago, the International Rescue Committee, already managing Shimelba’s education, health, and water and sanitation services, established Roots & Shoots clubs in the camp. The IRC hoped to provide young refugees with empowerment tools to rebuild their self-esteem and encourage them to engage in meaningful activities.
“There are so many problems here,” says Baihalu Mekonnen, IRC’s youth program officer. “Roots & Shoots covers some of the gaps.”
Baihalu has noticed a marked contrast in the motivation between the two ethnic groups. “It can be challenging to get the young Tigrigna mobilized to help,” he explains. “They’re very individualistic in their outlook. The Kunama, on the other hand, have a strong sense of community, so when you ask them to come and work on one of the Roots & Shoots projects, they come.”
Since February 2006, the Roots & Shoots groups have started building 50 houses for the elderly, the mentally ill, young women and other vulnerable members of the camp. A team of 15 people can build a house in two days.
Standing outside the newly constructed home of a refugee just shy of his ninetieth birthday, Kunama youth leader Gabriel Marco explains why he and his friends support the community. “In our culture, elderly people are much respected and young people know they should help them. When we were constructing these houses, everyone was participating. Working in collaboration is very common. It is expected.”Animals and Trees Need TLC, Too
Roots & Shoots clubs are undertaking animal and environmental projects as well. Every two weeks, youths clean the watering spots used by the goats, donkeys, poultry, camels and dogs that live in Shimelba. The young people also perform dramas, sing songs and distribute brochures about animal rights.
“Sometimes, unconsciously, people abuse or neglect their domestic animals,” says Baihalu, “so we try and raise awareness about animal care.”
Refugee camps impose a high degree of environmental stress on a local community. At Shimelba, for instance, both refugees and local people struggle to find firewood to meet their daily needs. Over the last five years, since the camp was constructed, the surrounding landscape has become denuded. To counter this, Roots & Shoots members have planted seedlings and are encouraging members of the community to do the same.
Club members also raise awareness on issues like HIV/AIDS prevention and gender equality with special events and coffee discussions in people’s homes.
“Roots & Shoots is one way to keep the youth busy and doing something constructive,” says Baihalu. “Otherwise, many of them would be sitting around getting depressed or frustrated. It’s an opportunity to keep them busy, while also allowing them to contribute something to their community.”