Single mother Habiba Mohamed Noor, 27, fled Somalia last year with her three children, the youngest only one month old. Like thousands of other refugees, they walked all the way to the Dollo Ado camps in southeastern Ethiopia.
The Dollo Ado camps are now home to more than 168,000 refugees, after a massive influx last year from the famine in Somalia. A year later, international attention has waned but the needs remain and Oxfam’s work continues. In the Hilaweyn camp, Oxfam has trained refugees like Habiba to become community mobilisers, working alongside our staff to deliver life-saving water and sanitation.
“At first (the camp) was overcrowded and people were defecating everywhere,” says Habiba. “No one used the latrines that had been built, or the basins and soap that were distributed. We drank the water near where people defecated, which was also next to where we ate. Women were scared of being raped if they went into the bush.
“I was worried my family would die of diarrhoea. At home deaths from diarrhoea were common during the rainy season. My husband died of diarrhoea in Somalia, as did one of my children when aged only three.
“I volunteered to be a ‘Public Health Community Mobiliser’ so I could learn how to stop this happening. I was lucky the community selected me. We were trained to wash our hands after going to the toilet and before eating. We trained others. In our home village, water was so precious so we did not wash our hands. Changing the children’s behaviour takes time.”
The volunteers faced cultural challenges too: “It was traditional in our village to collect and accumulate newborn baby’s faeces under the bed until the umbilical cord dried and dropped off. We were taught that if we didn’t do this devils would attack the infant and send it mad.”
Despite the challenges, the work of Habiba and others has had a real impact in improving conditions in Hilaweyn camp. “Although in the camp there are many more people living near my family than there were in the village, not one person has died of diarrhoea. I know now that any faeces, even from a newborn baby, causes diarrhoea and are dangerous. I am proud of what we have achieved – the communities pass the training on. It has changed how people perceive me and inspires me for the future.”
Habiba would like one day to return home to Somalia, when it is safe to do so. “Our families used to make their living by animals and farming. In the camp my only source of income is the food (aid) ration. I sell part of it so I can buy milk for my children. But at least we are safe here and will stay until we can go home. (But) it will be hard to leave without having any animals or money of our own.”