Aiding Refugees in Djibouti      

Putting the skills and knowledge they’re gaining to use in the real world is central to every student’s Delphi Program™. In their senior year, students may be invited to propose a service project where they contribute to others in a significant way (usually involving 70 hours or more of volunteer work). 

   This year, Delphian senior Yahya Abulohoum went to the Republic of Djibouti to help United Nations peace workers with the growing problem of providing for roughly 27,500 refugees, most of whom come from Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Yemen.

   In Djibouti, Yahya connected up with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and National Refugee Assistance Offices (ONARS) and did a multitude of tasks, from making Excel spreadsheets listing all of the refugees to visiting the camps and meeting with the refugee volunteers there. 

   Yahya said, “I visited a settlement in the capital where I met two refugees that work for UNHCR and help with the supervision and care of the rest of the refugees there. They gave me valuable information on how food and supplies are distributed and the way UNHCR incorporates the refugees in the process.”

   Yahya visited two refugee camps as well as the settlement in the capital and found that conditions varied dramatically from camp to camp. For instance, in the settlement, he found well-established organizational systems that help provide for the refugees. The employees distribute essentials like food, water and blankets and do daily check-ups to ensure anything urgent is serviced immediately. 

   At the end of every month, UNHCR starts handing out food and materials with a clear number system that shows how many people are in a house and any special supplies they might need. After a family receives their share, they are marked off in the system that keeps track of it all. This includes gas, 6 kg of rice, 6 kg of flour, a handful of sugar and canned beans for protein per person. 

   “Some camps are in better conditions than others,” Yahya said. “This is due to private and third-party government funds that are donated for a specific camp and not to the organization as a whole. But the process of distributing the food and supplies is still the same throughout all the camps.”

   After helping at the settlement, Yahya went to the refugee camp of Holl Holl, where its  predominantly Somalian and Ethiopian refugees are suffering horrible living conditions. “Many built their houses with scraps, sticks, cloth and tarps,” Yahya said. “Every time it rains, the water seeps through the cloth and ruins some of the houses. Rain is actually more destructive than productive there, because there isn’t enough rainfall to support agriculture, but it’s still enough to do a fair amount of damage to their living quarters.” 

   Every three to four months, Holl Holl receives building supplies for twenty houses but has fifty families that apply for and need the help. This presents a difficult job to the UNHCR workers, who must go through the homes of each resident and determine who needs the help more and who can wait until the next supplies arrive. 

   Yahya said, “I went with the UNHCR workers through these home visits, and trust me, they all need the supplies.” 

Yahya noted that in Holl Holl, the UN workers don’t build the houses. Instead, they hire refugees from the community to do the work in exchange for money. “I think this is important to that community,” Yahya said, “because the people who now have a new house then have to contribute in some way back to the community for the help they received. This is a great system that keeps people busy and contributing. Plus, once the camp has sufficient housing, they can shift more of their attention and money towards better food supplies and education.”

   The next camp Yahya visited, Obock, had roughly 1,750 Yemeni refugees. Receiving more funding from private donors and Saudi Arabia, these refugees had a sufficient amount of water, tents for each family, additional supplies and a whole set of tents set up for schooling from kindergarten through twelfth grade—even a medical center. 

   “Don’t let that deceive you,” Yahya said. “It might seem from hearing about it that the living conditions are just fine in Obock, but they truly aren’t.”

    Yahya spent one night and two days there and saw that the two biggest problems are lack of food and unemployment. “Six kilograms of rice a month is not enough to feed someone well,” Yahya explained, “and there isn’t much that can be done about it from the UN’s perspective. The refugees stay within the camp and keep receiving supplies every month without doing much to exchange for it. I think the UNHCR should push towards getting people integrated within the country and trying to help them find work. This was a problem before, due to patriotic laws that Djibouti had, but they are gradually shifting for the better and work can be found.”

   Yahya says about his trip, “Overall, going to Djibouti was an eye-opening and humbling experience. I got to see the different difficult decisions an organization like the UN has to make when dealing with a problem like this one. I learned that having food and water, and being able to keep good hygiene habits, is truly a luxury I never really put much attention on. Yet despite their circumstances, the people I met at the camps were positive and generous. I’m glad I was able to be there and help in some way. 

   “I have had a definite shift in some of my long-term goals as a result of this trip. I plan on not only working to improve myself and my family, but also to help give others the same opportunities I was fortunate enough to merely be born into.”