Refugee camps include thousands of parent-less children (June 17, 2012)

Written by Jeff Adams

Published by Calgary Herald on Sunday, June 17, 2012

Yida Refugee Camp, South Sudan

"I don't know why people are fighting," Rim Badal says. "I just found myself inside the fighting and ran."

Likes tens of thousands of other Sudanese children, the 15-year-old girl was forced to run for her life when bombs from Russian-made Antonov airplanes rained down on her village a few days ago.

Rim and hundreds of other students at her school scattered into the forest and began walking to the safety provided by this sprawling, dusty refugee camp across the border in South Sudan, where Samaritan's Purse is the lead non-government organization providing assistance.

"Life was bad," Rim tells me, in recalling the nine-day trek to Yida. "There was no food or water."

But she arrived alive. Since then, Rim has been vaccinated against measles by the non-profit Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) group, and received food and water rations administered by Samaritan's Purse. She has also begun attending classes organized by refugee teachers.

Although Rim has also been reunited with her mother and father, almost 3,000 other children in the Yida camp have not. Officially called "unaccompanied children," they are fed and housed in special Samaritan's Purse-built compounds: one housing 2,285 boys and another housing 561 girls.

While there are six adult males caring for the boys, a lone 24-year-old woman is overseeing all 561 girls.

"I am a mother to the girls and also a friend," says Oum Juma, who has memorized almost all of their names, including the 24 who arrived so far this week. "I care for them and listen to their problems."

Their problems include regular nightmares, during which the girls relive the horrors of the bombing raids or of Sudanese soldiers running through their villages, shooting or burning anything in sight.

"We ran into the woods so we wouldn't be injured," recalls Hiba Ashariff, 16. Sadly, one of her girlfriends was killed. "We came here (to Yida) to forget, but I still fear something bad will happen."

Ashariff's father was working in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum when the bombing raid began. She doesn't know what has happened to him or to her mother and two brothers, aged 15 and 18. In struggling to find something positive amidst her current plight, Ashariff expresses thanks that she can begin attending school again, even if the "classroom" is a blackboard hanging from tree branches.

Many "unaccompanied" children still suffer from the trauma of being separated from families, of friends or loved ones being killed, of watching their homes burn, of being forced to walk for days without food or water before arriving in Yida, and/or of being preyed upon by abusive adults during the journey.

"We've even heard heart-breaking stories of children seeing their parents killed in front of them," says Dave Philips, Samaritan's Purse's country director in South Sudan.

"Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is definitely an issue among many of the girls," adds Gabriela Ovington, manager of Samaritan's Purse's child protection program here. "They usually don't know if their families are still alive" and so some are prone to hysteria or trembling.

Ovington's and Juma's supervisory roles are made easier by a Sudanese culture in which older children traditionally care for younger siblings. In the special compounds, many of the older "unaccompanied" children have unofficially adopted younger children - cooking, cleaning, and helping in other ways.

Still, Ovington wants to develop formal emotional support systems for the girls, and - because many may never be reunited with their parents - to provide vocational training so they can learn skills like sewing, cooking or soap making. Meanwhile, the boys could be taught carpentry, brick-making, etc.

"We don't know how long some of them may be here," Juma says, and so it's best to plan for their future.

How long the refugee camp at Yida - and three similar ones (Jamam, Doro and Batil) where Samaritan's Purse is also providing essential services - will exist is unknown. But rather than shrinking, the camps are growing. There are 37,000 refugees in Yida, and a combined 90,000 in Jamam, Doro and Batil.

Sudan's 20-year civil war, when two million Sudanese died and more than 600,000 fled to Canada and other countries, ended in 2005. The southern half of the country gained independence last July.

Most people in Sudan are of Arab descent, while most in South Sudan are black. But there was no clear split when the new border took effect. Many black Africans found themselves on the north rather than south side of the border, and some are still fighting to gain independence from the government in Khartoum. That government is fighting back - and apparently using the conflict as an excuse to drive all black Africans out of Sudan.

Those forced from the Nuba Mountains are arriving in Yida, while those abandoning the Blue Nile area are arriving in Jamam, Doro and Batil. And among them are thousands of hurting children.