Students get dose of reality at refugee camps in Ethiopia

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Beth Duff-Brown

SHERKOLE, ETHIOPIA – The white jeep bumps along past red-clay villages dotted with thatched huts and waving children gathered in the shadows of the mango trees. The Stanford students are quiet as they observe the foreign landscape and grip their laminated design maps and exhaustive lists of questions. They’ve been preparing for this day for months.

The head of the UN refugee program in Ethiopia had just cautioned: changing the way we do things won’t be easy.

“First go see the realities on the ground,” said J.O. Moses Okello, the chief representative in Ethiopia for the Asylum Access, the global agency set up in 1951 to help those uprooted after World War II. “You do not have to reinvent the wheel. And yet, with all the new technology today, I suppose the sky is your limit. Come back to us with some good ideas.”

The students would soon learn that good ideas from the classroom don’t always translate to doable ideas on the ground.

“I can’t believe we’re finally here,” says Devorah West, a second-year master’s student in international policy studies, as she takes in the parched Ethiopian plains. Her team is focused on helping local communities share some of the benefits from the camps, while avoiding the pitfalls.

This long-awaited research trip emerged from a dialogue and collaboration between Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) and the UNHCR. A UN official approached CISAC Co-Director Tino Cuéllar a year ago about exploring ideas to better protect and support more than 42 million refugees, internally displaced and stateless people worldwide.

These early discussions led to a multidisciplinary partnership involving CISAC, students from across the Stanford campus and at the Hassno-Platner Institute of Design. Professors, NGOs such as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (IRC) and International Rescue Committee, physicians, architects and other professionals have all been eager to volunteer time and expertise.

Now, four students from Cuéllar’s Law School class, “Rethinking Refugee Communities,” have traversed the globe to test out their technology and design theories. Representing teams from the class co-taught by Leslie Witt of the Silicon Valley global design firm, IDEO, some 25 students spent the winter quarter consulting and brainstorming about ways to advance camp communications; food security and economic self-sufficiency; local community relations; and the complicated process of setting up camps for thousands of exhausted and heartsick refugees.

“It’s a long way from the classroom. I just don’t know what to expect,” West says, climbing down from the jeep with the black-and-yellow IRC logo. The NGO, founded in 1933 at the request of Albert Einstein to help those suffering under Hitler, has facilitated the Stanford visit.

The students were chosen by their classmates as the first to represent Stanford out in the field, for a project CISAC intends to build out for years to come. Parth Bhakta and Ben Rudolph are symbolic systems and computer science seniors, respectively, looking at camp communications and early camp registration. Jessica Miranda is another second-year master’s student in international policy studies who intends to take back to her team details about small-scale farming and ways they might help refugees become more self-sufficient.



First Camp

After two days of travel from San Francisco to Ethiopia and then two days of briefings in the capital, the students take an Ethiopian Airlines prop plane from Addis Ababa to the western town of Assosa. They arrive in Sherkole, a village 30 miles from the Sudanese border.

The students get their first dose of African celebration – and a hard dose of reality.

They have arrived on International Women’s Day, so the UN, IRC and numerous Ethiopian government agencies and international NGOs are celebrating in the camp’s main square. It’s 90-plus degrees and loud drums and horns compete with dancers and speeches about the need to recognize the accomplishment of women. It’s a joyous and hopeful scene.

But when the students gather in a nearby community center with two dozen refugees, they get an earful about the lack of communications, lost ration cards, displaced children and rivalries in the camp filled mostly with Sudanese fleeing fighting in the Blue Nile state in southeastern Sudan. Conflict in that region re-erupted in 2011 between the Sudanese army and rebels allied to the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, the dominant force in newly independent South Sudan.

“I have food. I have a wife. I have everything I need – but I have no freedom,” says Faruk Baba, a 34-year-old Sudanese living in the camp for 13 years. He met and married his wife and had four children in the camp that opened in 1997 and today houses some 7,600 refugees.

Though having spent more than a third of his life in Sherkole, Baba tells Rudolph and Bhakta that he longs to go home. He’s waited for more than a year for his repatriation documents. Can the students help him secure those documents? Can they give him freedom?

Seated in a circle on small stools in the clay-walled center painted lemon yellow and beastly hot with its corrugated tin roof, Rudolph and Bhakta gently tell the refugees they are not here to help them with their immediate woes; they are college students conducting research.

They turn back to questions about how the refugees communicate back home and whether the registration process was smooth when they arrived. But the refugees want to vent.

An old man with glasses shakes his head and says he’s been waiting nine months for his ration card; a woman with deep half-moon tribal scars on her cheeks clucks at the students and ignores their questions: “As refugees, we have no rights. We just do what they tell us to do.”

A SlideRocket presentation of the Ethiopia Trip 

Rudolph and Bhakta plow ahead. Bhakta talks about his scheme to set up radio transmitters on mobile broadcast kiosks that would allow them to communicate with the UNHCR. Rudolph explains his software designed to promote two-way communication between the UNHCR and refugees using mobile phone technology.

But Ethiopia has a monopoly on the cellular network, so the government might not be open to the new technology. Further, the refugees note, many of them have no access to mobile phones.

A young Congolese man then voices what many refugees likely think:

“We’re always receiving guests here and giving them information, but you never give us any solutions,” says Steven Murama, who says he fled eastern Congo three years ago, walking through Rwanda and Kenya and then onto Ethiopia after his village was attacked by one of the rebel groups terrorizing Congo’s South Kivu province.

“We are not kids to be toyed with out here.”

The students, somewhat dazed by jetlag and heat, reply that they have come with good intentions and hope to work on long-term solutions that may one day help the next generation of refugees.

“It was really tough speaking with the refugees initially,” Bhakta says. “You begin to realize that there are no easy solutions, despite all the work we did in the classroom.”

Yet many one-on-one meetings with refugees and Ethiopians in surrounding communities would prove fruitful over the next two days. 

“You read about refugees and their living situation in textbooks and articles, but actually visiting a camp makes it come to life; it puts things in perspective,” Rudolph says. “If it was easy to apply technology to the refugee situation, then there’d be no challenge. What’s the fun in that?”

Next: Devorah West sits beneath a mango tree to talk to a local village head about how the refugees have impacted their lives.