"Before it comes to my house, let me run"

News Stories, 22 June 2009

© UNHCR/E.Hockstein
Somali refugees stand by their tents at Dadaab in north-west Kenya.

DADAAB, Kenya, June 22 (UNHCR) Habiba Abdi Rahman Mude is from the Medina district in Mogadishu. Forced to flee her home by fighting this past month, she recently arrived with her son, Muse, in the Dadaab refugee settlement in north-east Kenya, where she met with UNHCR's Andy Needham and told her story.

Mogadishu has been a dangerous place to live for most of Habiba's short life. She was aged seven years when her country last enjoyed a functioning government. Since then, the capital has been torn by violence on a regular basis.

But the latest outburst came too close to home. On May 13, a mortar shell landed in a neighbour's house, killing the entire family. Habiba, who has a disabled eight-year-old son, did not hesitate. She and Muse joined other neighbours who were boarding vehicles bound for neighbouring Kenya.

There was no time even to notify her husband, Muhidin Aweys, 35, who was in the nearby market at the time. Nor did she have enough money to pay the minibus fare. But a friend found a driver who agreed to take her for free.

Habiba's flight to safety lasted five days and nights. It took her from the Somali capital to Afgooye, then on through Bravo, Kuyaburooy, Jilib, Marka and other small towns that Habiba cannot recall. The minibus drove through the night, with two drivers taking turns at the wheel and stopping only for passengers to grab a meal at roadside "hotels." For five days and nights, Habiba cradled her mentally disabled son Muse on her lap.

© UNHCR/A.Needham
Habiba with her son Muse.

Arriving in Kenya, she boarded another vehicle bound for Dadaab, one of the largest refugee settlements in the world.

"Things here are one hundred times better than in Mogadishu," says Habiba, resting in the Lutheran World Federation shelter where, as new arrivals, she and her son will receive plastic sheets, soap, mats and jerry cans. Her son looks on from a wheelbarrow she has acquired for him.

"There is no war or fighting here. We are just able to rest peacefully," she says . "In the last month, things have gotten worse in Mogadishu. People have been displaced, lost. You don't know where your neighbour is. When the fighting starts and there is gunfire and explosions in all directions, people are running, saying, 'Before it comes into my house, let me run.'"

Even before the fighting intensified between government forces and the Al Shabaab Islamist militia last month, "getting food and water depended on whether or not you had money. Sometimes we had money, so we had porridge. Sometimes we had no money, so we had hunger instead," Habiba explains.

"If you had money then you could go to the market, buy some small items of food and cook them immediately." Water cost about 1,000 Somali shillings, or 70 US cents, for three 20-litre cans.

Now Habiba can get food and water. As a registered refugee, she can collect 15 days' worth of rations for her and Muse on the last day of the current food distribution cycle. Shelter is a bit more problematic: Dadaab, with almost 300,000 people, is badly overcrowded and UNHCR does not have any more land to parcel out to new arrivals. For now, Habiba is sharing a space with a female relative and her family who have been in Dadaab for the past four years.

Habiba also plans to visit Handicap International (HI), an NGO. She is hoping to get a wheelchair for her son. No one knows what is wrong with him. He can't speak, walk or use his hands. But he is alert and reacts when he hears registration staff calling the names of the new arrivals to be registered at the UNHCR field office. He watches as they file past to collect their ration cards.

Back in Mogadishu, Habiba did not even have a wheelbarrow. She carried Muse everywhere on her back and developed a back injury as a result. "I am hoping that I will be able to get medical attention for my son. I would like to see him walking well on his own feet some day. Anyone who can help me with that, I welcome them," she says.

Habiba is less hopeful about her native country. Asked if she expects to return, she replies: "Maya (No)," emphatically and without hesitation. "Things won't get better: Maya, maya."

By Andy Needham in Dadaab, Kenya




UNHCR country pages


Almost half the people of concern to UNHCR are children. They need special care.

Refworld – Children

This Special Feature on Child Protection is a comprehensive source of relevant legal and policy documents, practical tools and links to related websites.

People with Disabilities

People with disabilities remain largely invisible or forgotten in their uprooted communities.

People with disabilities

Between 2.3 and 3.3 million of the world's forcibly displaced people live with disabilities, one third of them children.

Related Internet Links

UNHCR is not responsible for the content and availability of external internet sites

Iraqi Children Go To School in Syria

UNHCR aims to help 25,000 refugee children go to school in Syria by providing financial assistance to families and donating school uniforms and supplies.

There are some 1.4 million Iraqi refugees living in Syria, most having fled the extreme sectarian violence sparked by the bombing of the Golden Mosque of Samarra in 2006.

Many Iraqi refugee parents regard education as a top priority, equal in importance to security. While in Iraq, violence and displacement made it difficult for refugee children to attend school with any regularity and many fell behind. Although education is free in Syria, fees associated with uniforms, supplies and transportation make attending school impossible. And far too many refugee children have to work to support their families instead of attending school.

To encourage poor Iraqi families to register their children, UNHCR plans to provide financial assistance to at least 25,000 school-age children, and to provide uniforms, books and school supplies to Iraqi refugees registered with UNHCR. The agency will also advise refugees of their right to send their children to school, and will support NGO programmes for working children.

UNHCR's ninemillion campaign aims to provide a healthy and safe learning environment for nine million refugee children by 2010.

Iraqi Children Go To School in Syria

Dadaab: World's Biggest Refugee Camp Turns 20

Last year, 2011, was the 20th anniversary of the world's biggest refugee camp - Dadaab in north-eastern Kenya. The anniversary is a reminder of the suffering of the Somali people, who have been seeking safety and shelter for two decades. UNHCR, which manages the Dadaab complex, set up the first camps there between October 1991 and June 1992. This followed a civil war in Somalia that in 1991 had culminated in the fall of Mogadishu and overthrow of the Siad Barre regime.

The original intention was for the three Dadaab camps to host up to 90,000 people. However today they host more than 463,000 people, including some 10,000 third-generation refugees born in Dadaab to parents who were also born there.

Last year's famine in Somalia saw more than 150,000 new arrivals, a third of the camp's current population. Overcrowding and stretched resources as well as security concerns have all had an impact on the camp, but UNHCR continues to provide life-saving assistance.

Dadaab: World's Biggest Refugee Camp Turns 20

Erbil's Children: Syrian Refugees in Urban Iraq

Some of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees are children who have sought shelter in urban areas with their families. Unlike those in camps, refugees living in towns and cities in countries like Iraq, Turkey and Jordan often find it difficult to gain access to aid and protection. In a refugee camp, it is easier for humanitarian aid organizations such as UNHCR to provide shelter and regular assistance, including food, health care and education. Finding refugees in urban areas, let alone helping them, is no easy task.

In Iraq, about 100,000 of the 143,000 Syrian refugees are believed to be living in urban areas - some 40 per cent of them are children aged under 18 years. The following photographs, taken in the northern city of Erbil by Brian Sokol, give a glimpse into the lives of some of these young urban refugees. They show the harshness of daily life as well as the resilience, adaptability and spirit of young people whose lives have been overturned in the past two years.

Life is difficult in Erbil, capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. The cost of living is high and it is difficult to find work. The refugees must also spend a large part of their limited resources on rent. UNHCR and its partners, including the Kurdish Regional Government, struggle to help the needy.

Erbil's Children: Syrian Refugees in Urban Iraq

Ethiopia: Far From Home Play video

Ethiopia: Far From Home

Nyabuka Lam arrived in Pagak, Ethiopia in September after escaping armed men who shot her three children and husband back in her home country, South Sudan. After walking for 15 days to reach the safety of Pagak, she is now finally on a path to recovery.
South Sudan: Grandma Abuk's ChildrenPlay video

South Sudan: Grandma Abuk's Children

Years of violence and bloodshed in South Sudan robbed Abuk of her seven children. When fighting returned last year, the old lady fled anew with her grandchildren, hampered by deteriorating eyesight.
Kenya: A Lifetime of WaitingPlay video

Kenya: A Lifetime of Waiting

Sarah was born and raised in Hagadera refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya. Now 21, she has become a wife and mother without ever setting foot outside the camp.