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Refugee Encampment: Living only to survive

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Jamal, Nadia, and children, safe and warm in Baltimore

When Nadia and Jamal put their kids to bed in June of 2016 they didn’t know if the children would stay warm that night. The couple huddled together with their three kids as a cold night fell over the Jordanian desert. With only a candle as a source of light, the kids laid awake frightened of what ghosts lurked outside their tent. Nadia and Jamal knew there were no ghosts that could compare to the nightmare they left behind in Syria. Despite the conflict they endured, and their forced exile from their country, Nadia and Jamal continued to wait out their hot days and cold nights in a refugee encampment, not knowing when they could move on with their life.

More than seven million refugees in the world reside in camps like the one Nadia and Jamal stayed in to escape conflict, abuse, torture, and persecution. Some refugees wait more than 10 years to hear news after they have applied for resettlement. While the camps keep many safe from conflict, the temporary nature of the settlements means they are not a place to make a life. The camps often offer only poor nutrition, housing, and medical care. The IRC Baltimore uses experience, understanding, and services to help refuges cope with the trauma, malnutrition, and depression caused by the camps.

While in the camps, many only live to survive. The bare minimum is provided for food and shelter.  Former refugee from Eritrea, Yakob Ghirmay, spent five years in the Shimelba Camp in Ethiopia before his resettlement to Baltimore. At Shimelba, Yakob was only allotted 15 kg of unground wheat and one liter of oil a month. Yakob had to manage the rations in hopes of them lasting the month. At Zaatari, Nadia and Jamal’s refugee camp in Jordan, they were given no stove to cook with.

“I had to travel a 15-minute walk to the kitchen, then wait my turn to cook. It took one hour, two hours to cook. [My daughter] was two years old. It was impossible. I couldn’t leave the tent.”

Finding a job is rare within the camps. At best, one could volunteer, but opportunities are slim.

In most camps, refugees are issued a tent as their home.

“It was very hot in the day for the kids and very cold in the night. My kids were very young. We needed all the blankets together. They didn’t have vaccinations at first. Every day they got sick and we would have to walk an hour to get transportation to the hospital.”

Obtaining quality medical care was the most difficult due to restrictions of movement outside of the camps. Yohanas was an interpreter who worked for the IRC and CIS (Center for Immigration Studies) in the Shimelba camp.

According to Yohanas, “You cannot go to another city without permission of the government.”  A refugee would need to fill out paperwork to go to a hospital outside of Shimelba.  Like a prison, no one was free to move about the country.

In Ethiopia and Jordan the government will not pay for the medical treatment of refugees, leaving many without medication and proper treatment.  Nadia spoke of her sister’s mother-in-law whose medical condition could not be accommodated by the camp and had no access to medication.  Her situation became so dire, she risked the danger of going back to Syria to obtain the proper medication.  

By far, the hardest part of encampment is waiting for resettlement.  Nadia, Jamal, Yakob, and Yohanas all took part in a 20-step vetting process that on average takes two years.  The process starts with registration, goes through two extensive interviews, three background checks, three fingerprint screenings, and several case reviews. If you are lucky enough to be eligible for resettlement in America, you may still have to wait more than a year just for a flight.  

Yakob explained, “You’re always waiting. So you expect a flight.  And some people they keep waiting for a flight for months and years. So you hope you don’t have the same fate. You see people waiting two years for just for a flight and then the medical process expired so you have to get all of the screening again for the medical process. Sometimes in my journey I go Am I in America or am I still in Shimelba waiting for a flight?”

The wait can be demoralizing. Refugees never know if they will eventually be resettled. At Shimelba, Yakob saw the people around him lose their sanity while waiting.

“The hopelessness I found at home it followed me to the refugee camp too.” Yakob said. “That’s why you find people going crazy, losing their mind, and taking unnecessary action.”

To combat the experience of living in a camp, the IRC has taken measures to ensure clients will be able to resettle and thrive in Baltimore. All caseworkers are trained to counsel women and men who may have experienced trauma in the camps and refer them to the appropriate resource. One of those resources is our Special Needs Care Department that addresses client's physical and psychological needs.

The IRC aids all clients with a home, food, and healthcare assistance when arriving to the US.  Youth caseworkers help enroll children like Nadia and Jamal’s kids into school and keep up their grades. Through the employment program, refugees can move forward and plan for the future.  

Jamal gained his current employment through the IRC employment services, but has bigger plans for his family’s future. He and Nadia have just completed their certification for Medical Front Office through the IRC’s RISE Employment Program and are excited to start in their new career. Their children no longer cry at night because of the cold.

No longer waiting, Yakob has seized his new life as an American citizen, and is now the owner of Pass Plus Driving School in Highlandtown.  His business recently became the first driving school in Maryland to be certified as a minority business enterprise.  

Story by Kristne Lusk/IRC, photo by Ana Lewett/IRC