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This, Our Exile

In Ethiopia’s camps, the church helps refugees waiting for a better life

text by Emeline Wuilbercq with photographs by Petterik Wiggers

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With her hair tucked under a scarf, Netsanet busily brews coffee. It takes time to prepare the traditional beverage of the Horn of Africa, and customers are already arriving.

In the shady courtyard of her sheet metal and straw house, she has set up a café where her compatriots from the Mai-Aini camp in northern Ethiopia come to sip coffee, take their breakfast or just chat with this generous woman in her 30’s.

Despite her smile, her heart is full of painful memories of the world she left behind.

“It was horrible, but when you are far away, you forget these things,” she says. In this refugee camp, there are thousands of people such as Netsanet. They left their former lives, their relatives — sometimes even putting them in danger — and fled the country they love.

“My native city is beautiful, the weather is nice,” she continues nostalgically. “Here it is very hot, it makes my children sick.”

Her reasons for leaving are simple and are far from unique.

Ethiopia hosts the second-largest number of refugees in the African continent, sheltering more than 900,000 registered refugees and asylum seekers, according to United Nations High Commissioners for Refugees (UNHCR). They mainly come from South Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea and Sudan, according to Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA), the Ethiopian government’s counterpart of UNHCR, whose mandate is to receive and assist refugees and asylum seekers. Those from north of Ethiopia are sheltered in four camps around the town of Shire, in the northern region of Tigray.

And they keep on coming.

“There is an average of 120 people who cross the Ethiopian border daily [in this way], up to 410 per day,” explains Mohammed Mitike, ARRA program head in Shire.

“More than 70 percent are young and more than 10 percent are unaccompanied and separated children. Out of the 180,000 registered refugees, only 40,000 are registered for food distribution.” Some of these people may settle in the biggest town of the region, Mekele, or in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital where there are many urban refugees. Many others continue the road to exile, through Sudan and the dangerous Libyan route. Some dare the dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean Sea, where more than 3,000 migrants died in 2017.

“Secondary movements are a big challenge,” Mr. Mitike adds. In the camps, huge billboards show people blindfolded to highlight the danger of illegal immigration.

Netsanet knows the danger only too well. In 2013, Netsanet’s first husband, who had found refuge in Libya, asked his wife for money to pay smugglers to help him leave. He attempted to cross the Mediterranean and drowned.

Netsanet eventually remarried — but her second husband also met a tragic fate.

Though he did not attempt the crossing, he was deemed too impertinent in the eyes of the authorities. When he dared to complain about the unjust demolition of their home, security forces took him to prison.

“They thought he was part of the opposition,” Netsanet adds. Two days later, her husband’s body was brought back home.

After the death of her second husband, Netsanet decided to leave at all costs.

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