Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Visiting Nakivale

Monday 24 October marked United Nations Day a global occasion to highlight, celebrate and reflect on the work of the United Nations and its family of specialised agencies. It was also an opportunity to recognise the support and contribution of civil society to the UN through organisations such Australia for UNHCR. UNHCR is increasingly relying on support from individuals around the world, and Australians are making a very big contribution to its work in many ways.

A few weeks ago five donors and I completed our “Nakivale Trek for Refugees”, which involved an incredibly hard five-day slog through the Ruwenzori mountain range in western Uganda.

To say it was challenging is an understatement. The Ruwenzoris are remote, rugged, and very very wet. Although we had been warned about the muddy conditions, we were totally unprepared when we had to abandon our walking shoes and spend five days in gumboots, slipping and squelching our way through the endless bogs and marshes that made us feel as though we had stumbled onto the set of Lord of the Rings.

What kept us all going was the terrific camaraderie that quickly developed amongst us (inevitable perhaps when you are all sharing the same tent), as well as the knowledge that we were doing this for a worthwhile cause.

Perhaps it was not surprising then that all the trekkers felt the highlight of this journey was not surmounting the peaks of the Ruwenzoris, beautiful as they were, but the day we spent in the Nakivale refugee settlement at the end of the trek.

Although one day was not nearly long enough to see and experience the many facets of this settlement, we were able to visit a number of projects supported by Australia for UNHCR donors.

Some of our experiences were confronting, which is a reality in refugee situations. As one of our party described his visit to the health centre, “For me the visit to the health centre was very confronting. The day we visited there were approximately 500 people at the health centre awaiting medical treatment. This was a relatively quiet day despite most rooms being filled to capacity. It is tough to imagine what a busy day is like. To our shock we were told that the whole refugee settlement had only two doctors due to the skills shortage, which is crazy to think considering the population is almost 60,000.
A young boy receives treatment in the health centre

To end our health centre tour we visited the children’s ward - a space the size of a small classroom - where we met a three year old boy who had lost sight in one eye and had third degree burns to more than 50% of his body due to him pulling down a pot of boiling water on himself in the family’s makeshift kitchen.”

In a totally different experience in the afternoon we attended the opening of the computer training centre, which is also funded by Australian donors. On its first day of operations more than 900 young people signed up for computer training skills. The centre also had internet access, which has opened up a whole world of new possibilities to refugees, such as distance education.

Australian donors should be proud that they have helped achieve so much in Nakivale and that through our support to UNHCR we are part of a much bigger global humanitarian family.

Monday, September 12, 2011

"Uwe Na Safari Njema"

Source: Google Maps

Well I am now counting down the hours till lift off and I will soon arrive in Uganda for the Nakivale Refugee Trek 2011. Am I ready? Not really. I haven’t done half the training I had hoped for but I am setting off with 5 fellow Australia for UNHCR donors on our Fundraising Challenge which involves trekking over 30km up the Rwenzori Mountain range in south-west Uganda. This is a very remote part of Uganda. On one side of the mountain range is Congo and on the other Rwanda, and about two hours away is Nakivale Refugee Settlement which is our final destination on this trek.

Last night our guides emailed to say the rainy season has come early so we need to bring plenty of wet gear. So, although I have packed my poncho, boots, and plenty of spare socks, I will be praying for sunshine by the time we arrive at the mountain.

Our donor trek team has done an amazing job and raised about $40,000 with more to come. The funds raised will go towards our projects in Nakivale to support clean drinking water projects, improved health services and more educational support for the many thousands of young people who live in the settlement.

In Nakivale, our Australia for UNHCR project manager Kayte Webb is planning a great welcome. Australian donors have helped fund the first ever Computer Technology Access Centre (CTA) and this will officially open on Tuesday 20th September with lots of entertainment provided by refugee musicians and performers. Lameck, a refugee from Congo, is a fantastic rap artist and the Burundian drummers are sensational. I know that there are already refugees lining up, eager to use the computer facilities, learn new skills and have access via technology to a wider world.

A group of students at school in
Nakivale Refugee Settlement
I am also helping Kayte to launch our Skype project through which we will link up a school in Australia and school children in Nakivale via a real-time video connection. This hasn’t been done anywhere else in the world so another first for Australia for UNHCR and our donors!

I look forward to telling you about how the trip goes as well as our projects in Nakivale. We are hoping to do another trip next year up Mt Kilimanjaro so please contact Sue Cowden at Australia for UNHCR if you are interested. In the meantime I hope you travel well - or as my Kenyan friends say Uwe na safari njema.

Naomi Steer

Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Sliver Of Hope Amid The Gloom

Australia for UNHCR National Director Naomi Steer has just left famine-stricken Somalia – a situation described as “the worst humanitarian disaster in the world”.

I was in Somalia last week when the United Nations declared parts of the country to be in famine. With some estimates putting acute malnutrition rates as high as 50% in southern parts of the country, the scenario is very grim. Refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia are overflowing with new arrivals desperately seeking relief assistance. With an estimated 3.7 million people affected by the drought – that’s one in every two Somalis – the situation is very bad.

I was in Galkayo district as part of a UNHCR mission looking at the situation of displaced people within Somalia and how Australians might provide support. Flying into Galkayo, the landscape below was tough, red, rocky earth.

Galkayo is in the middle of Somalia, midway between the capital Mogadishu and the coastal town of Bossaso, a jumping-off point for refugees trying to make it across the Gulf of Aden into Yemen. In my pre-mission security briefing I had been advised to keep a low profile, be appropriately covered at all times and to avoid conflict. I was given a card with advice about what to do if taken hostage. It was all pretty confronting stuff but necessary given Galkayo is rated as a Level 5 Security Phase, one short of the most extreme rating of 6. All movement round Galkayo is with an armed security escort. A strict curfew is enforced between 8am and 5pm.

During my stay, I visited several camps for internally displaced people (IDPs). The path to one settlement was strewn with discarded blue plastic bags – the “Galkayo flower” as someone cynically described it to me. People were squatting in the dirt making shelters out of twigs and rags and cardboard. They were barely able to keep out the never-ending wind and sandy grit that clung to everything. In one camp, a newly arrived family worked against the clock to get their shelter up before night. Their meagre belongings, carted many hundreds of miles from their village in the south, lay strewn on the ground around their camp site. They had gathered together a collection of used vegetable oil tins which they were going to use as a bed base. Next door a woman had gathered rocks together as her base and she cried as she told me she had never thought her life would lead to this situation.

Outside, a chirpy little boy showed me his torn-off thumbnail. One of the many young children who work as child labourers here, Mohammed told me that he was a shoe shine boy but was worried that with his infected finger he would not be able to do his job. This was important to him as he said his parents fought all the time, his mother blaming his father for not providing food for the family.

A little girl nearby clung to her mother, her swollen belly and feet indicating acute malnutrition. The mother told me her daughter had been in hospital for two weeks but, now released, wouldn’t eat her ration of Plumpynut – the high-protein, peanut-based therapeutic food provided to acute malnutrition cases. But there was nothing else for her to eat.

The displaced population in Galkayo are either refugees from war, famine or both. People tell stories of failed crops, of whole flocks of sheep and goats dying from thirst and lack of feed. Many had fled Mogadishu after seeing family members killed in missile attacks or caught in cross fire. One woman arrived only days before, still in shock after learning that both her brother and father had been killed in the family home after staying behind to protect their window fittings and roof sheeting from looters during missile raids.  Another young woman showed me remnants of shrapnel in her hands and legs. Everyone here has run out of coping strategies. It is the end of the line.

In the midst of all this gloom stands the oasis of the Galkayo Medical Centre. Established by Dr Gaima in 2004, the hospital provides a huge range of health services including being the main referral hospital for fistula repair in Somalia.

Dr Gaima, until recently, was the only trained gynaecologist in Puntland. In contrast to so much of what I have seen, the hospital is spotless, the staff efficient and friendly. I tour wards of women suffering from all sorts of gynaecological problems; there are some rape victims, and many men who have suffered gunshot wounds or car accidents. In addition, Dr Gaima deals with many unique cases he says he never saw in his many years of practice in Italy – an indication, perhaps, of the total lack of health care most Somalis endure. As we do the morning round people reach out their hands to him. Dr Gaima has a kind and cheerful word for all his patients.

I am surprised to find out that Australia for UNHCR is the sole donor to the hospital as part of UNHCR’s ongoing support. In addition to this hospital, Australia for UNHCR also funds three health posts in the IDP camps and health services at Hadiya hospital. These services are the only free medical services provided to IDP’s, refugees, asylum seekers and poor locals.

To me the hospital represents a sliver of hope in this tough, dangerous country. I promise Dr Gaima and his dedicated staff that Australia for UNHCR will continue providing Australian donor support as long as we are able.

Naomi Steer

Please visit www.unrefugees.org.au/EastAfricaCrisis to find out how you can help UNHCR provide humanitarian assistance and food relief to those fleeing drought, famine and conflict in Somalia.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Celebrate World Refugee Day

60 years of international protection and assistance for refugees

2011 marks the 60th anniversary of UNHCR and also of the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees – the key legal instrument underpinning the rights of refugees and the obligations of state parties to provide asylum.

Australia was one of the founding members of UNHCR and also one of the first states to sign up to the Convention. But the world has changed dramatically since the Convention was formulated.

Speaking at Australia for UNHCR’s World Refugee Day Breakfast last Friday, Australia for UNHCR’s Chair, John Denton, speculated about whether the “well of compassion” that led to Australia’s support for the Convention 60 years ago, had perhaps almost disappeared.

I would like to think not. But the ongoing debate about refugees and asylum seekers continues to underlie misconceptions about why people flee their homes and countries looking for safe refuge elsewhere.

This Refugee Week in Australia, SBS is screening a new three part series called Go Back to Where You Came From. According to the SBS publicity, Go Back to Where You Came From follows six ordinary Australians of varying ages and backgrounds, who agree to challenge their preconceived notions about refugees and asylum seekers by embarking on a confronting 25 day journey.

By chance I was in Kakuma Refugee Camp (one of the locations for the TV series) a week before their film crew arrived. Australia for UNHCR has funded a number of projects in Kakuma. Refugees and UNHCR staff wanted to know more about these other Australians who were soon to visit the camp. At first they were confused when I tried to explain what a ‘reality TV/ documentary’ was and that some of the Australians coming may not be very supportive of refugees.

However, after considering it, everyone was surprisingly open and positive. “Let them come, let them see how we live, how we have to survive here, and then they will change their mind.”

I don’t know how this experience did in fact change the way these Australians saw things (we will have to watch the series) but I am convinced that the more we are able to encourage direct contact and personal engagement with refugees then greater understanding and compassion will follow.

In line with this belief, on World Refugee Day Australia for UNHCR is launching a unique initiative aimed at linking up Australian students with refugees via Skype.

The project, Here & There, will be a world first, making possible a real-time video cross between an Australian school and a refugee school in Nakivale Refugee Settlement in south-west Uganda.

Using Skype technology, students in both countries will be able to connect their classrooms, ask each other questions and work together on a creative project to learn about each other’s lives. The project aims to raise awareness among young Australians about the issues facing refugees of their own age, many of whom have spent their childhoods in refugee camps.

It also aims to open new opportunities for refugees. As Gode Migerano, one of our guest speakers at our World Refugee Day Breakfast and himself a refugee said, “I would have loved to have this opportunity when I was living in a refugee camp as a young teenager. It would have opened the world to me.”

To find about more about the project and how you might be involved go to herethere.org.au

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Best Place and Worst Place to be a Mum

According to a recent report, Australian mums are ranked number 2 in the world – second only to Norway out of 168 countries.

In the 2011 Mothers’ Index Rankings1, Australian mums scored high on key indicators such as health, education, economic and political status and children’s well-being. This should not be surprising in a country that provides universal health-care, free education and has a stable and growing economy. The story is the same for most developed, industrialised countries with the exception of the US - but that’s another story!

But what about countries that don’t have these same advantages? The 10 lowest ranking countries are in a reverse image of the top 10, performing poorly on all indicators. Conditions for mothers and their children in these countries are devastating.

  •  The Maternal Mortality Ratio (which measures the number of maternal deaths per 100,000 live births) is 1,200 per 100,000 live births compared to 8.4 per 100,000 live births in Australia2;
  • The Infant Mortality Ratio is 142 in 1,000 births compared to 4.7 per 1,000 in Australia2;
  • It is estimated that the proportion of births taking place in health facilities is just 9% with nearer to 100% in Australia2.

Improving maternal health is one of the 8 Millennium Development Goals adopted by the international community in 2000. Under MDG5, countries are committed to reducing maternal mortality by three quarters between 1990 and 2015.

Since 1990, maternal deaths worldwide have dropped but the rate of progress is far behind other MDG goals. For example, the global mortality ratio declined by only 2.3% per year, well below the annual decline of 5.5% required to achieve the MDG52.

Women in developing countries face many challenges but refugee and displaced women face even more. A fundamental right of any woman is to have control over her reproductive health and by extension to be able to give birth in a safe and clean environment.

A group of Somali women wait outside
a medical centre in Bossaso
So what can be done? The good news is that there are relatively simple interventions that can have a huge impact on the well being of mothers and their children.

Infection, which is a number one contributor to morbidity in both mothers and children after childbirth, can be eliminated if good hygiene is practiced and if early signs of infection are recognised and treated in a timely manner.

Complications such as preeclampsia (hypertension and high blood pressure) can be detected by trained birthing staff and managed before the onset of convulsions and other life threatening complications.

Severe bleeding after birth (which can kill a healthy woman within two hours if she is unattended) can be treated immediately after childbirth effectively reducing bleeding.

Australia for UNHCR’s Safe Mother and Baby Program, which we have implemented in Myanmar, Chad and now Somalia, aims to provide effective interventions to address each of these key areas effecting refugee and displaced women and their children.

The Somali project is being run at Galkayo Hospital in the Puntland region of Somalia. Galkayo is one of the few operational hospitals in all of Somalia. The Safe Mother and Baby Program is the only one of its kind being implemented across Somalia and it is one area where Australian donors are making a huge difference for the well being of mothers and their children.

Central to the program is the very simple but also very effective  Clean Delivery Kit – a plastic bag containing a clean razor blade, a plastic sheet, a swaddling cloth, soap and a piece of string. Each of these key items is designed to help a birthing mum and her helpers deliver a baby in clean and hygienic conditions. Where it has been introduced it has been able to significantly reduce mortality rates.

Australia for UNHCR is also funding the training of traditional birth attendants and community outreach workers to educate women about the need for regular check ups during pregnancy to avoid complications such as preeclampsia. It has also funded medical outpost clinics and mobile health clinics to provide early intervention and referrals when conditions first emerge.

In order to improve women’s access to hospitals – the safest place to give birth – Australia for UNHCR is raising funds to provide two ambulances, upgraded facilities and equipment in the Galkayo hospital and salaries for trained Doctors and midwives.

Issues around the situation of refugees and displaced people can sometimes appear insurmountable. The Safe Mother and Baby Program which has at its heart the Clean Delivery Kit is an example that big problems sometimes do have simple solutions.

Naomi Steer

Visit www.unrefugees.org.au/MaternalHealth to find out more about UNHCR Programs. To show your support for refugee women this Mother’s Day go to www.unrefugees.org.au/MothersDay.

1. Save the Children “State of the World’s Mothers”, 2011
2. WHO Publication Maternal Mortality Fact Sheet 348, November 2010. 

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Help us Celebrate International Women's Day!

A woman and her child rest after
finding safety at a camp in Chad
Today is International Women’s Day. At Australia for UNHCR, International Women’s Day is particularly relevant as statistics show that an overwhelming majority of refugees are women and children. It is therefore necessary to not only spend this time reflecting on the achievements of women around the world, but also to reflect on what else needs to be done to provide refugee women with similar experiences and opportunities to those we may expect here in Australia.

Although this may seem like a somewhat daunting task, there are many things that can be done:

Protection on the ground

·         Support public awareness campaigns such as the global 16 Days of Activism. UNHCR runs many programs aimed at educating refugee communities – men, women and children, aid workers and local authorities – about women’s rights and their need for dignity and respect;
·         Build capacity of local authorities;
·         Support initiatives such as UNHCR’s solar lighting program which give women much greater security by reducing their vulnerability to attack at night in dark refugee camps.


·         Ensure that legal consequences follow from the violence against women;
·         Last week, for example, a Congolese court sentenced Lieutenant Colonel Kibibi Mutware and eight of his men to 20 years in prison for the brutal rape of 62 women in the village of Fizi in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. These convictions marked a breakthrough in a country where armed men have long committed extreme acts of sexual violence with impunity.


·         Provide educational opportunities to girls leads to a host of other positive outcomes – girls who are educated have children later, and fewer children, are more likely to earn a viable income for their families, and less likely to experience domestic violence.

Maternal Health

·         Help fund programs like Australia for UNHCR’s Safe Mother and Baby project in Somalia. Somalis have the worst health outcomes of any population in the world – the result of three decades of conflict.
·         The Maternal Mortality Rate in Somalia is 1,044 per 100,000 live births compared to 8.4 per 100,000 live births in Australia. Put another way a woman in Somalia is 125 times more likely to die from complications during childbirth than a woman in Australia. Australia for UNHCR is finding the only reproductive health program in all of Somalia at Galkayo Medical Centre.
A mother and child receive healthcare
at a clinic in Somalia

We know we cannot always bring about the perfect outcome despite our best efforts, but one of my favourite stories highlights that this doesn’t always matter - it’s the standing together that counts.

Jane Williamson is an Australian human rights lawyer who has been posted with UNHCR in Sudan, Darfur, Myanmar and most recently Bangladesh. I asked Jane what difference she felt she had made given the many challenges humanitarian workers face working in the field. She thought for a moment then told me a story about a woman who had arrived at her camp severely debilitated by fistula – the result of an obstructed birth. A horrible consequence of the condition is acute incontinence which results in many women being considered ‘unclean’ and rejected by their husbands and families.

Like many women in this position Halima was a social outcast and suffered a deep sense of rejection and shame. Jane and the UNHCR team facilitated her transfer to a specialist fistula clinic where she spent the next three months being treated. Unfortunately the doctors were unable to repair the physical damage, but she was taught however how to better care for herself. She was also given psychosocial counselling. Most importantly she had the support of many other women in the hospital going through the same experience – and she realised she was not alone.

Jane delightedly recounted that when Halima returned to the camp she was transformed. She proudly wore a clean white t-shirt emblazoned with the words “End Violence Against Women”. Due to her new confidence and outlook she overcame the prejudice of her fellow refugees to become a respected community leader, speaking up for other women who needed support.

That, for me, says it all about the power of women standing together to support each other no matter how great the challenge.

Today on International Women's Day, we ask our supporters to "Donate Your Facebook Status" to show your support for refugee women. Go to our International Women's Day page on the Australia for UNHCR website and click on the "Share" function to show your support!

Naomi Steer, National Director

Friday, March 4, 2011

Australia for UNHCR supporting International Women's Day

An internally displaced Congolese
mother camps close to the 
military base in Masisi for security
A few months ago I was sitting on the ground in a remote refugee camp, under a shady tree with a group of refugee women who had come together to share their experiences with me. The peace and quiet surrounding us belied the horror stories they recounted. Nearly all had been raped, had suffered mutilation and torture, or been victims of domestic violence. In this one refugee settlement alone it was estimated that more than 50% of the women arriving had been raped.

When one woman calmly told me how she had been raped by several men, left for dead, and then when returned to her family had been “resewn” with thorns to restore her “virginity”, I was overwhelmed.

One woman, seeing the tears in my eyes, took my hand and comforted me, saying “Sister, don’t cry. Don’t be sad. We have all have been raped and it is okay.”

But of course it is not okay. As Australia celebrates our first female Prime Minister, many millions of women still suffer appalling abuses of rights in their everyday lives.

The situation for refugee women is even more precarious. Displacement compounds the many issues women already face such as sexual and gender based violence, poor reproductive health, and limited access to education and income generation.

Australian women still face challenges such as equal pay, affordable childcare, representation on Boards, and – sadly, as I told my refugee friends – sexual and gender based violence here too. (The refugee women were very surprised that domestic violence and sexual assault also happened in Australia. They thought it was something that only happened in their world.)

Burundi is host to around 24,500
refugees, the majority of whom
originate from the DRC
But while we aim for the glass ceiling, I believe we also have a responsibility to reach out and pull up the many women around the world who are still stuck on the dirt floor.

For me this is what International Women’s Day is really all about.

Naomi Steer, National Director

Feel free to visit our website and see how we will be supporting refugee women on March 8th, 2011.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

New Year, New Hope

New Year is a time of renewal and hope. And also typically where we wish friends and family good wishes for peace and prosperity.

Young men dance a traditional Karen
dance in celebration of the New Year
This year I celebrated two New Years. The first was with my family and thousands of other Sydney-siders enjoying the Harbourside fireworks. The second, a week later on the 8 January, was with the Karen community launching the Karen calender year at Granville Town Hall in Sydney’s west. The New Year was heralded in by an elder blowing the traditional buffalo horn.

Peace was very much on the minds of the Karen who have endured more than two decades of persecution in their homeland of Burma. The Karen are one of the main ethnic groups who have been in conflict with the Burmese regime for decades with more Karen now living as refugees outside Burma than in.

Over the last few years, thousands of Karen have been resettled in Australia and I had the good fortune of being invited to this year’s event by friends in the community who I had first met in refugee camps on the Thai Burma border.

The Zu family have travelled a very long path from when I first met them five years ago in Tham Hin refugee camp - to their new home in Sydney. Their teenage daughter, Naw Zu, gave a moving speech about her experiences as a young refugee.

Born in the jungle as her family fled from the Burmese army, Naw grew up with her brothers and sisters in the camp. When they first arrived there was nothing and her family had to hack down the bush and build their own shelters. Naw said education was one of the most valued things about her new life in Australia. She was determined to use her new opportunity to go back and help other Karen still in the camps.

One week later, I met with my friend Ibasi Ohide and her family from Sydney’s south. Ibasi and her family were also acutely aware of the hardship having lived for many years in a refugee camp in northern Uganda after fleeing their bombarded town of Torit across the Sudanese border. 

At the time they would never have predicted that South Sudan would now be at an historic turning point with the long anticipated referendum finally taking place last week. Nearly four million Sudanese registered to vote in the landmark referendum. 

In yet another example  of how interconnected we are, nearly 9,000 Sudanese waited patiently for  their turn to mark the ballot paper with their thumb in polling  stations set up in Canberra, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney. Australia was one of a number of countries with a large Sudanese diaspora who were given the right to vote in the election. 

In a side story to the floods, the organisers of the referendum polling in Sudan ordered an extension to polling in flood-hit areas of Australia.

Rose Ohide with her referendum
registration card
Almost everyone expects the south to vote overwhelmingly to break away from the north leading to the creation of the world's newest nation. 

Despite the apprehension about the many challenges ahead – Sudanese have made a leap in their faith with their thumbs up for a new South Sudan. As Rose Ohide told me “It’s good to dream. I want my country for once and for all to be stable, peaceful, developed like any other country. We have great resources in Sudan. We want our leaders to use them wisely for the benefit of the people. It has been a hard journey but nothing is ever too late.” 

UNHCR reports that an average of 2000 people are crossing into South Sudan every day with many more expected in the coming months following the referendum. They have come with everything they own, including beds, mattresses, sofas, chairs, tables, cooking utensils, corrugated iron sheeting, radios, TV sets, fridges and small generators.
UNHCR has established a presence in the 10 states of South Sudan to support returnees and the local community. The refugee agency also set up five way stations and a number of soup kitchens along the route to the principal areas of return. These way stations are providing a safe place for women, children and the elderly to rest as they make the arduous journey home. 

For these returning families, like so many refugees, this is just one more step in a journey home that for many has lasted a lifetime. 

I hope 2011 brings us all peace and happiness. 

Naomi Steer, National Director