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Refugee Women, Children in Kenya and Djibouti Face Everyday Hardships

For years, the countries of Kenya and Djibouti in east Africa have been struggling to cope with their large refugee populations, mostly from neighboring war-torn Somalia. The most vulnerable of these refugees, women and children, face hardships every day.

It is barely seven o'clock in the morning in Djibouti City, but the temperature is already well beyond 40 degrees Celsius.

It is even hotter inside the tight maze of trash-strewn streets and run-down tin shacks that make up Section Three, a squalid neighborhood on the edge of town that is home to about 10,000 of Djibouti's poorest people.

But more than 20 percent of the people who live here are not Djiboutians.

They are mostly Somali refugees, victims of Somalia's vicious, long-running civil war that began in 1991 when rival clans began fighting each other to fill the power vacuum left by deposed dictator Mohammed Siad Barre.

The war has since killed hundreds of thousands of people, including Fatima Araab's husband and brother. Afraid for her life and the lives of her seven children, Fatima fled to Djibouti from the Somali capital, Mogadishu, seven years ago.

Now, there are more than 15,000 Somalis with similar tales in Djibouti, a country with a total population of just 500,000.

Sitting next to her tiny home, a dirt-covered wooden shack in Section Three, Fatima says she has found safety here but little else for her family.

"Look at the way we live," Fatima says. "We are eaten by mosquitos but we ourselves have nothing to eat. My children cannot go to school because they have to beg for food around the neighborhood every day. This is the way we live, she says."

Nearly 2,000 kilometers south of Djibouti, Halima Hassan Mursal tends goats for her neighbors at Dadaab camps, a facility in northeastern Kenya that is home to some 130,000 mostly Somali refugees.

Halima says tending goats is the only way she can earn some money to buy food for herself and her five young children.

She says she fled her home in Mogadishu 12 years ago, losing three children along the way. One was killed by militiamen in Mogadishu. The other two starved to death, shortly before she reached Kenya.

Another child, seven-year-old Ahmed, has recently developed chronic stomach pains. Halima fears he may die if she does not get him to a hospital.

Officials in Kenya and Djibouti say it is next to impossible for their countries to provide better living conditions for refugees.

Years of rampant corruption have made Kenya one of the poorest countries in the world. Many of its own 30 million citizens live in desperate poverty. Djibouti is also poor, with as many as 60 percent of Djiboutian adults unable to find jobs.

Both countries rely heavily on the assistance of the United Nations and non-governmental organizations to take care of the humanitarian needs of the refugees.

Emmanuel Nyabera, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Nairobi, says his organization is trying its best to meet the basic needs, especially the needs of children. He says providing education to refugee children is critical because they can eventually return to help rebuild their countries.

But while some progress is being made to educate children of refugees, he acknowledges that most refugees in east Africa are still not getting the help they need.

"This is the most productive part of their lives, but they find themselves confined in camps," he said. "They become very, very desperate because they have a lot of energy that can be directed toward positive things, but where they are now, they end up just idle."

But one refugee boy in Djibouti has no intention of staying idle.

Across town from Section Three in Djibouti City, residents of another poor district called Ambouli enjoy teasing Ali Abdullah, a 10-year-old boy with smiling eyes and a big dream.

Ali says he polishes shoes every day for people all over Djibouti City. Sometimes he earns as much as $1, sometimes he earns nothing.

But Ali says he does not want to be a refugee. He says he is determined to go back to Somalia someday and live in a proper home with lots of cattle and servants.

His eyes twinkle as he dashes off barefoot, his tin shoe shine box clanging behind him.