Salo’s journey from danger to safety

Elman Camp, Ethiopia

By Mohamed Abdulahi Mohamed
25 September 2019

“My baby son is smiling for the first time in months and my daughter feels safe enough to play. I am happy,” declares Salo Abdi (40), a mother of two young children who also takes care of her brother’s daughter     

Salo Abdi married young into a pastoralist family and raised her two children in the shared traditions of the multi-ethnic societies bordering the Somali and Oromia regions of Ethiopia. She recalls those happy times when living together in harmony was the norm and one’s ethnic identity was not a problem. When one ran out of money, it was the most natural thing to ask a neighbour for support and the favour could always be returned. Life was about sharing. 

But her life changed one tumultuous night in January 2018 when neighbours warned her that the situation in the town was getting worse for members of her ethnic group. The neighbours advised her to leave that night and seek help from the local police. Following their advice, she left with all she could carry, thankful for their kindness. In the mayhem that followed, she lost her brother to the violence.

“That night, the police protected me and helped me and my children to escape the town in the thick of night,” she says.  “We walked for 150 kilometres to a place where our safety was guaranteed.”

Reflecting on her losses, Salo says she and her family are just happy to be alive.

“I am learning to fit into this new life, but I am still a stranger to this IDP camp (for the internally displaced). I escaped my home with only my life and two pillow cases. Everything must start anew.”

During the journey, Salo nearly lost her son Abdi, aged one-and-a-half years.

“First, he stopped smiling, then he stopped eating, and when he couldn’t breastfeed, he stopped reacting to anything we did for him.” 

Salo Abdi (40), a mother of two young children also takes care of her brother’s daughter.
Salo Abdi (40), a mother of two young children who also takes care of her brother’s daughter

On arrival at the camp, Salo took Abdi to a UNICEF-supported stabilization centre for children with acute malnutrition where he was immediately admitted. After two weeks of treatment, Abdi had recovered well enough to be discharged and continue his treatment from home.

“His condition has improved. He has gained weight and his appetite is good,” says Salo. “I am very happy with the service I received. My child would have died”.

On life in the camp, Salo says she feels safe and even if she doesn’t always have food, her son is getting better and her daughters do not feel insecure.   

Humanitarian staff from UNICEF visited Salo’s family in the Elman IDP camp in Hudet Woreda (district) in the Somali Region. The region hosts more than one million internally displaced persons, who need food, clothing, shelter and other essentials. More than 50 per cent are found in Dawa Zone where Elman Camp is located.

To meet the enormous challenge of providing for this extremely needy population, in February 2018, UNICEF embarked on a humanitarian response that delivered targeted packages of assistance with the aim of improving the lives of children. In Elman camp, UNICEF provided safe water, treated children with severe acute malnutrition, and constructed temporary learning and child-friendly spaces where children could play, learn and be safe.  Between January and July this year, 1,300 children had been treated for severe acute malnutrition and 3,900 had received quality education through the temporary learning spaces. The water supply system is still being expanded and upon completion in November will provide safe and fresh water to some 15,500 people in the camp.

The temporary learning and child-friendly spaces are run by a local non-governmental organization called OWDA. Salo’s eldest daughter has enrolled in the child-to-child programme that delivers developmentally-appropriate play and early learning activities for pre-primary aged children, facilitated by older children in grades five, six or seven. The child-to-child methodology is flexible and is taught by adolescents who volunteer their free time to support young children. In doing so, these ‘young facilitators’ learn useful skills to help them prepare for future careers.

“When my daughter and my niece are at the child-friendly space, I have the time to go and fetch water and attend to other domestic chores,” she says. “I am a single mum in this house and it is a God-send that my children are safe and busy when I am also busy.”

Regrettably, families like Salo’s find themselves on the brink as drought, yet again, threatens the lives of 76,500 people in Dawa Zone. A delay in the next rains expected in October may push families over the edge, many of whom have already suffered loss of livelihoods through conflict and have little to no resilience to the effects of the drought. 

By implementing an integrated, multi-sectoral response, UNICEF has supported thousands of children to survive and thrive. Interventions include mass nutrition screening, treatment of malnutrition, increasing access to safe water, strengthening disease prevention, supporting children to enrol and remain in school, and providing child protection services. UNICEF has been able to implement these interventions through funding provided by the European Union’s humanitarian agency ECHO, the UN’s Central Emergency Relief Fund, and the Ethiopia Humanitarian Fund.