Peter and Cath Woolner are from Kitchener, Ontario, and they are MCC’s representatives in Ethiopia.  Their blog, “Mystery and Wonder – the Journey Revealed” chronicles some of their travel and work in the country.

In the Gambella region of Ethiopia, almost 300,000 refugees from South Sudan live in camps. MCC works with partner International Medical Corps to provide support to refugees in the Jewi, Tierkidi and Kule camps.

The Woolners recently visited the region. Here are some excerpts from their blog, written by Cath.

Tierkidi refugee camp.MCC photo/Peter Woolner

Life for women and children

Just one week before our visit to South Sudanese refugee camps in Gambella region, we welcomed our first grandchild. So, it was with the emotions of this new life in mind, that my heart (and arms) was drawn to the babies and young children that we met in the camps.

Cath and baby at food distribution centre at Tierkidi.MCC photo/Peter Woolner

And I couldn’t help but compare and contrast the lives facing the children in the refugee camps, and that of our young granddaughter in Canada.

While our granddaughter spent her nights between a cozy bassinet or crib, South Sudanese place their babies in a homemade woven bed (which with twins can be very cozy). Babies are carried around with these beds and are carefully watched over by their mothers, older sisters or one of the many “aunties” in the camp.

Most children are born with the help of midwives in the camp, and although women breastfeed their children, the women’s own nutritional status can deplete her milk supply. Malnourishment among children and mothers is up to 30 per cent with health issues of malaria, anemia and intestinal parasites a struggle for many.

Amongst the refugees, 72 per cent are children, 20 per cent women and only 8 per cent men. Thus the children are most often being raised in families with mothers who have had to flee South Sudan on foot by themselves, and who are struggling to settle in a new country with new foods and a very new life.

Nyalew Koat (left) and Nyaguona Rutkhoch with their babies, at Kule refugee camp.MCC photo/Peter Woolner

Nineteen year old Nyachoat Gatkak lives in the Kule camp with her two children. She is from South Sudan.

 “I used to live a wonderful life. My husband was a trader,” she says. “We had a boutique and a grocery store so we were able to provide enough and save for the future. But as the crisis got worse we were robbed and everything we had was destroyed.”

Gatkak wanted to leave South Sudan, but her husband didn’t want to become a refugee. Gatkak left on her own, while pregnant with her second child. They arrived at the Kule camp in Ethiopia in June 2014.

She worries about the health of her children, especially her youngest, and welcomed the distribution of MCC canned meat in the camp.

Nyachoat Gatkek, age 19, holding her six-month-old daughter Nyagoa Gatkak, received MCC canned meat at the Kule refugee camp.International Medical Corps photo/Feleseta Kassaye

“I was delighted to hear that canned meat is being distributed by (MCC partner) International Medical Corps for little children like mine,” Gatkak says. “They also showed us how to cook it so I will start to feed her right away. Thank you International Medical Corps.”

Gatkak says “when the good times come,” she wants to return to South Sudan and educate her children.

There is schooling in the camp, once the camps are established. The children enjoy playing soccer and other games together, when they aren’t helping their mothers with the daily tasks of living in a refugee camp.

Playground beside school in TierkidiMCC photo/Peter Woolner

How long will these children be in the camps? How long will the situation in their home country be so unsafe that it keeps them in a foreign land? My prayer is that each child might experience love and safety in a family and community that they can call home, and be given the opportunities to grow and learn to be able to contribute in meaningful ways to their community.

Cath and kids playing soccer at schoolyard in Tierkidi.MCC photo/Peter Woolner

More about MCC’s work with refugees in Ethiopia

Ethiopia now hosts more than 650,000 refugees — the highest refugee population in Africa inside its borders. These refugees come from surrounding countries as they seek to escape civil war and violence, drought and famine. From the north there are tens of thousands of Eritrean refugees, from the east have come more than 250,000 refugees from Somalia, from the west refugees from South Sudan, and the newest group of refugees, although less than a few thousand, are arriving from Yemen. 

Nyadnol Tut and her 10-month-old daughter leave the distribution center at Tierkidi refugee camp with relief supplies including MCC canned meat.International Medical Corps photo/Feleseta Kassaye

On the Somali border, MCC partners with International Medical Corps in Dollo Ado,  to fund water pipelines, sanitation and livelihood projects, as well as providing MCC material resources in the form of relief kits, health kits, hygiene kits and comforters. In the past, MCC has also worked in the area with Lutheran World Federation.

In Gambella Region in the west of Ethiopia we got a glimpse into the lives of the refugees, and the response providing assistance, support and safety to these refugees.

Like all refugee camps, the provision of services is divided between a number of agencies and NGOs under the coordination of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees and the Ethiopian government Agency for Refugee and Returnee Affairs.

Convoy of 25 buses of refugees on the way to Pugindo 2 camp.MCC photo/Peter Woolner

There is a reception area on the border where refugees stay to get their documentation for resettlement into one of the camps. The camp that opened in the last week of August, 2015, Pugnido 2, had thousands of refugees moving from the border to the new camp.

Pugnido 2, in the Gambella region of Ethiopia, two weeks after it opened. MCC photo/Peter Woolner

When people arrive in the new camps, their housing is made from United Nations plastic sheeting. But as quickly as possible, they build traditional tukuls with sticks and mud and use the plastic sheeting and tarps as roofs. Although it is clear that people are in a refugee camp, the authorities have opted to leave much of the natural vegetation of trees in place and clear out the underbrush. This leaves the camp looking more like a village.

Tukul housing in Tierkidi refugee camp.MCC photo/Peter Woolner

Through its partner, International Medical Corps, MCC has provided 63,000 cans of chicken and beef every three months to be used as supplementary food to the basic rations. There’s also an outpatient therapeutic program for more than 5,000 children six to 23 months, and pregnant and nursing mothers who are severely to moderately malnourished. The distribution is occurring in the three camps of Kule, Tierkidi and Jewi.

Beneficiaries arrive at the distribution centre in Jewi refugee camp.MCC Photo/Peter Woolner

Much work, care and love go into supporting and assisting refugees to settle into their new temporary homes as long as is needed for them to feel safe.

MCC representatives for Ethiopia, Cath and Peter Woolner, work in the MCC office in Addis Ababa.MCC photo/Dave Klassen

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