Refugees cling to life at Dadaab

By August 22, 2011

Kenya (MNN) — Life at the world's largest refugee camp has always felt cramped and temporary, but in the past few weeks, Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya has literally been spilling over the edges.

Over the past few weeks at Mission Network News, we've given you insight on the Horn of Africa famine–the worst of its kind in 60 years. But today, we dive into the heartbreaking center of humanitarian crisis by exploring life in a severely overburdened refugee camp.

Dadaab is the largest refugee camp in the world. Camps like it are meant to be temporary, constructed for crisis use and torn down as the issue subsides. But Somalia, in particular, has been the very model for a failed state for so long, that Dadaab has remained open for two decades to take in desperate Somalis.

Over the last few years, Dadaab has gotten more and more crowded. It's difficult to find places for families to go once they arrive, and sending them back to their own countries is often not an option. But since famine began to ravage East Africa, the camp has been absolutely overflowing.

500 Somalis pour into Dadaab on an average weekly basis, but since the famine, the numbers have been over 5,000 per week. Families arrive with fewer children than when they came, exhausted, but also malnourished and many in need of immediate medical care.

But the camp has run out of space. "Dadaab refugee camp [is] actually three camps. Each one was meant to hold about 30,000 people," explains Dan Poenaru, a partner of Africa Inland Mission and doctor with Bethany Kids Africa. "At this point in time, each camp has more than four times that capacity, well over 100,000 people."

Poenaru has been in and out of the camp for the last several years, working as a pediatric surgeon at a camp clinic. Dr. Poenaru says that although Dadaab–the oldest refugee camp in the world–has been beyond capacity for quite some time, it's never had to stretch like this.

Upon finding there is no room for them at the camp, desperate and starving people have now resorted to living on Dadaab's perimeter, where there is no access to water or sanitation.

"Whatever structure and organization that existed in the past few years, much of it has been replaced by the chaos of trying to help," says Poenaru. NGO's are everywhere, trying to provide immunizations and medical attention to the most desperate of the now 400,000 refugees at the camp.

Interestingly, Poenaru's own organization, Bethany Kids, has not seen as significant an influx of patients as they thought. Bethany Kids, which mainly performs surgeries, expects that number to rise as the famine subsides.

"I suspect that what will happen over the next few weeks and months, as the acute emergency subsides somewhat, is that we will suddenly find ourselves with a much larger number of children with disabilities and surgical problems that we need to treat," observes Poenaru. "And that's when we will feel the crunch."

In the meantime, Poenaru and his team are doing what they can while in the desperate and flooded refugee camp to shine the hope of Christ for the thousands who have been made hopeless. Poenaru says in a culture where doctors hardly look at their patients, it's easy to reflect Christ by simply showing care and love to people in this dire time.

At this point, the crisis is far from over, and Dadaab continues to shake under the weight of so many needy people. Poenaru reminds us, though, that Christians have a responsibility to those in need.

"The interest of the media after a few days will probably disappear," notes Poenaru, "and Dadaab will again be only known by a few people. And yet as Christians, we have a biblical responsibility to pray and to help those that are in need."

Poenaru adds, "Think about these needs not only as yet another crisis that [you] see on the news, which floods us with crises all over the world, but think about the people that are behind this. Think about the children who come who have had zero access to healthcare, or very limited access even to food. Realize that as Christians, they are our neighbors."

Pray that as more refugees come into Kenya, they will be exposed to Christians, especially Somalis who come from a 99.9% Muslim nation. Pray that the kingdom of God will shine through this crisis as a beacon of hope for a new day.

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