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Aid Workers, Residents, Struggle to Cope with Influx of Somali Refugees in Kenyan Camp


In Somalia, tensions between the rapidly-expanding Islamic Courts Union and the fledgling transitional government are escalating, prompting fears of an impending civil war. This has caused tens of thousands of Somalis to flee into neighboring Kenya since the beginning of the year. Many of these Somalis are ending up in one of three camps at the refugee settlement of Dadaab, in northeastern Kenya. Already short of resources, the settlement is straining to accommodate the new arrivals. Cathy Majtenyi recently visited Ifo Camp in Dadaab.

A familiar sight on the edges of Ifo Camp: the women of this newly-arrived Somali family are constructing a shelter they will be calling home for the foreseeable future.

Elsewhere, families are at various stages of building their shelters and adapting to their new environment.

Haden Mohamed Nyaiya and her family arrived in Ifo camp a month ago and have already settled in. She says it was fear of civil war that drove her and 23 relatives to flee Somalia.

Meanwhile, in another part of the camp are families who have been here for up to 15 years, when Dadaab first opened following the outbreak of civil war in Somalia.

The conflict began in 1991 when then-leader Siad Barre was overthrown. Since that time, militias loyal to clan and sub-clan-based factions have controlled different parts of the country, with no law and order or even basic services to help the people.

A two-year peace process in Kenya that brought together feuding warlords and others led to the formation in 2004 of a transitional government and parliament to bring order and stability to the chaotic country.

But that was not to be. This year saw the rise and expansion of the Islamic Courts Union. Since June, Islamists have been taking control over much of southern Somalia as well as the capital Mogadishu, raising mass fears of outright war between them and the fledgling transitional government.

Many Somalis subsequently fled, crossing the barren, isolated lands of the Kenya-Somali border area to end up here, at Ifo or one of the other two camps comprising Dadaab. The total population of Dadaab now stands at 160,000 people.

The United Nations' Refugee Agency coordinates programs and services delivered to the refugees by several aid agencies.

Geoff Wordley is a senior emergency and response officer with the U.N. refugee agency. He describes to VOA the challenges of accommodating an estimated 32,000 additional refugees who have arrived at Dadaab since the beginning of this year.

"We've had to bring in an emergency response team. They've been on the ground now for about three or four weeks to assist the office in coping with the situation. Clearly, the workload in the office has increased as a result. As far as life in the camps is concerned, we've had to expand the camps obviously to accommodate these new arrivals. As far as the already existing refugees, many of who have been here for the last 15 years, clearly there are disturbances in their lives as well. They have had to accommodate and get used to new neighbors who are here for perhaps for different reasons what they came in for, different clans, so it's been quite a challenge I think for everyone to deal with this influx."

One such aid agency working in Dadaab is CARE. Among its many activities, CARE distributes food rations to the refugees in Ifo and other camps on behalf of the World Food Program.

CARE's logistics manager in Dadaab, Bishar Salat Ahmed, expresses frustration at feeding a population that has risen by some 12,000 in just the past few months. "Nobody has foreseen that this population would increase, and nobody knew what was going to happen in Somalia. Based on that, we made use of the small resources available, and we tried to see how we could distribute the resources available within Dadaab."

Residents of Dadaab themselves have had mixed reactions to the new arrivals, with some feeling resentment over the straining of resources.

Dadaab resident Sahara Mohamed Ali, who came here in 1991, describes the situation in her camp when the influx was at its peak several months ago. "Those people, they don't get enough things, because they were not given shelter, they were not given food; they were brought and dropped within the camp. They used to ask (for) help. But other people, they cannot help [the new arrivals]. They (the new arrivals) disturb a lot; they bring a lot of problems."

Dadaab's children, too, have had much to cope with as they try to adjust to a new culture, language, and education system.

Friends Primary School in Ifo Camp has grown by several hundred children in the last few months. There are now some 1800 students attending the school.

Elizabeth Balibonera Mawazo, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, is a Ki'Swahili and French teacher who has been at Friends Primary School since last year. "When the new children come, we put them in a class according to their performance. We give them special attention according to their needs. But the more the children come, the more facilities we should be getting. We have very few seats. The children are so many, but the space is very small. They seat four children on one bench -- those are too many."

But for now, the children -- and those who care for them -- are trying to make do as best as they can with what they have. With the advent of the rains, the refugee influx has slowed, and aid workers say they have been able to accommodate the people who have come so far. But the expectation is that more refugees will come as the turmoil in Somalia continues.