Friday, December 21, 2012

Celebrating the little things: One Direction and refugees have more in common than you may think

What does Niall Horan, the Irish lead singer in boy band sensation One Direction, want for Christmas? The action packed FIFA 13, a racetrack ready Audi R8, a new guitar? Maybe. But like most of us at this time of year, what Niall really wants most of all is to “go home” to spend a quiet and peaceful Christmas with his family relaxing in his native Ireland. Or in his words – care of the Irish Times – “We have little traditions like going to the pub on Christmas Eve and watching telly all day. It will be the same as always and that’s what I love about it.”

How do I know this you may ask, being outside the usual boy band demographic? Because my 16 year old One Direction obsessed daughter Elysia, also currently thousands of miles away from home, sends me frequent, loving and slightly manic updates via Skype and email about her current adventures as part of a school exchange in Japan. And from what I can gather, her new friends apparently are equally crazy about young Niall as their visiting Australian guest.

I can’t wait for Elysia to arrive home – on Christmas Eve – happily just in time for the annual family gathering. And like Niall, we will be enjoying a traditional get together with family and friends.

Dusty celebrations  

Across the globe my friend and colleague Donna Corcoran will be celebrating a very different kind of festive season. An Australian working for UNHCR in Dollo Ado refugee camp on the Ethiopia/Somalia border, Donna will be sitting down with UNHCR colleagues from all over the world also to share a traditional meal – in this part of the world it’s the Ethiopian staple injera and goat curry. The landscape around Dollo Ado is not unlike some remote parts of Australia, a sun baked and windswept landscape. But unlike our largely empty ‘red centre‘ Dollo Ado is alive with people – almost 150,000 Somali refugees who have sought shelter in refugee camps in the region fleeing conflict and food shortages neighbouring Somalia.

Dust in Dollo Ado, Ethiopia. Australia for UNHCR/2012

To many refugees here, it’s a miracle that they are alive at all having survived the terrible famine last year that forced so many Somali refugees into neighbouring refugee camps. Australian donors played an important part in UNHCR’s relief efforts contributing over $5 million towards critical life saving support such as food, emergency nutritional support, clean drinking water and shelter.

12 months on the situation has improved, although Dollo Ado is still on an emergency footing given the large number of refugees who arrive daily in the camps. On a recent visit there together with ABC Breakfast Radio host Adam Spencer I spoke to many refugees who thanked me for our past support. With the situation in Somalia still very volatile most families did not expect to return to their homes in Somalia any time soon and a common plea was for us to help provide better housing.

The tents distributed at the start of the emergency were only ever meant as a temporary solution. In the harsh conditions they deteriorate very quickly and are very hot inside. So, we recently launched our Australia for UNHCR Christmas appeal calling for support for Dollo Ado with a special focus on raising funds for transitional housing. Made out of bamboo, mud wattle and iron sheets this new housing is cooler, healthier and sturdier than tents.

Somali refugees might not be able to return to their homeland but at least we can try and give them and their families a better home while they wait for things to improve.

Connecting at Christmas

Heading south west across several African borders, thousands of refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo continue to arrive in Nakivale refugee camp in Uganda. UNHCR worker Judy Nyamato is preparing for her own Christmas in Nakivale, currently home to more than 60,000 refugees. Judy worked with me in Australia for a number of years as part of our Face to Face fundraising team before returning to her home in Kenya. Now in Nakivale, Judy is helping run the Computer Technology Access program that Australia for UNHCR donors built.

Since opening last year, the Centre has become the heart of Nakivale. More than 400 refugees have graduated through its computer training program and the attached Internet Cafe rarely has a seat vacant with refugees paying 1500 Ugandan schillings (around AUD 50cents) to access the internet and the world outside the confines of the camp. Many are searching for lost friends and family via the refugee support site Refugee United, a very simple but effective program that was made possible by the centre being set up and internet access being provided.

Nakivale Computer Technology Access Center gives refugees a link to the outside world. Australia for UNHCR/2011

Here in Australia we regularly get emails from our refugee friends thanking us for the support we continue to provide to the camp. Their messages are a constant reminder of the connections between us despite the vast distance. And with over a third of Australia for UNHCR staff coming from refugee backgrounds, some of whom still have families in camps such as Nakivale, the reality of the daily experiences of refugees is very much present within Australia for UNHCR.

Fighting the cold 

One UNHCR worker who will be heading home to Australia this Christmas will be Andrew Harper, UNHCR Representative to Jordan. For most of this year, Andrew has been on the frontline in one of the world’s current crises managing the hundreds of thousands of refugees pouring into Jordan from Syria.

For Andrew, like his counterparts in other refugee camps, his focus has been on trying to get enough resources to provide basic services to the thousands of men, women and children in his camps. As he describes it, working life in camps like Za-atri is a race against time – just as adequate resources are put in place for existing refugees a new wave arrives in the camp.

Again shelter is a key priority. However unlike Donna Corcoran dealing with blazing sun and dust storms in Dollo Ado, Andrew is currently facing the onslaught of a typical freezing desert winter with snow and frost. UNHCR is replacing tents with containers to provide better security and protection against the elements.

Refugees like Zahar are grateful for the support that UNHCR has given but she fears the onset of winter. Like so many people she arrived in the camp with nothing – shops, and services having ceased to function in her home town in Syria. She has wrapped her one year old son snugly in UNHCR blankets.

Her immediate concern is better and warmer shelter for her family. However what she wants most is a good night’s sleep in her own bed in her own home.

Zahar’s wish is not much different to what we all want, especially at this time. However for many people forced by conflict and persecution to flee their homes we know these wishes will remain just that, perhaps for a long time to come.

In the meantime I am very grateful for the support that Australians continue to give to UNHCR and the refugees and displaced people under its care.

Wherever you might be this holiday season – whether happily watching telly together like Niall and his family, picnicking on a beach enjoying the Australian summer, gathering around a traditional feast with friends and family, or like Zahar dreaming of your own bed and home – I wish everyone all the very best from the team at Australia for UNHCR and thank our wonderful supporters who have given so much again this year.


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