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Somali refugees hope for better life beyond Kharaz camp

Al-Astagbal IDP camp in Amran City Tom Finn/IRIN
A child in the Al-Astagbal IDP camp in Amran City
Every year tens of thousands of Somalis risk their lives crossing the Gulf of Aden to reach Yemen in their search for safety and a better life. Many die atrocious deaths - beaten, thrown overboard, eaten by sharks, drowned or asphyxiated in the hold of crowded smuggler boats.

Most Somalis who make it to Yemen simply disperse on their own, either making their way to the capital, Sanaa, or other urban areas like Basateen shanty town in Aden. But thousands of others end up in Kharaz refugee camp, a derelict military barracks on a dusty, scorching hot plateau in Lahj Governorate about  two hours’ drive west of Aden.

Many of the refugees in Kharaz are marooned there, unable to go back to their insecure homelands or to find work in Yemen.

Like most refugee camps, Kharaz was meant to be a temporary solution, a place where the basic needs of Somali refugees could be met until the violence in Somalia died down, allowing them to return home. But with tribal violence still raging in Somalia and tens of thousands of African migrants arriving on Yemen’s shores ever year, the population of Kharaz camp continues to grow.

A burning question now faces those living and working in the camp. What next?

“A second generation of Somalis is on the rise; children born here are now reaching adulthood and know of little else outside of camp life,” Gawad Mohamed, a refugee education programme officer from Save the Children, told IRIN.

“The civil war in Somalia has been raging for two decades now. We have to think seriously about the future lives of these children which will most likely be spent here in Yemen.”

Few job opportunities

Kharaz shelters 14,000 refugees in cinderblock huts. There are schools, clinics and food rations, but no jobs.

Residents at Kharaz - like all Somali refugees in Yemen - are entitled to work. Some of those who leave the camp during the summer months (when temperatures can rise to 50 degrees Celsius) may find casual work, but many resort to begging for food once they reach the cities.

“My three boys work as car washers or beg, and my two girls work for nearly nothing as maids in Yemeni houses,” Suleiman Ibrahim, a resident at Kharaz camp, told IRIN.

Those unable to afford the YR700 (US$6) bus ride to Aden end up languishing in the camp, enduring the dry desert wind and the monotony and dependency of institutional life.

“What the resident refugees - especially the younger generation - miss the most is the opportunity to get proper education and a job, to support themselves and to move out of camps and into independent living,” Kristalina Georgieva, the European Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response, who recently visited Kharaz camp, told IRIN.

“For such opportunity to flourish, Yemen needs two things - first, peace, and second, economic prospects. This would improve life not only for the refugees of Kharaz and other camps, but also for Yemenis themselves.”

Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab world and with an unemployment rate of 35 percent it cannot offer much more than hospitality and safety to the refugees. Yemenis and Somalis alike are competing for already limited opportunities.


Flanked by mountains and barren desert, Kharaz camp is both geographically and demographically isolated. For those living here, assimilating and participating in Yemeni society is not always easy.

''The Somali people living here are secluded. Apart from the occasional trip to Aden there is not much interaction with the outside world''
“The Somali people living here are secluded. Apart from the occasional trip to Aden there is not much interaction with the outside world. It’s easier for those [refugees] living in Aden,” said Sidewa Yacub, leader of Kharaz camp’s educational committee.

Until 2003, the curriculum in the camp’s primary school was taught entirely in Somali, a language incomprehensible to most of Yemen’s Arabic speakers.

The transition from Somali to Arabic has been tough at times; according to Ismail Abubakr Ahmed, headmaster of the camp’s primary school. Some of the students still refuse to speak in Arabic.

“It’s not only the language but the culture of learning which differs in Yemen. We have had to learn to be flexible in our approach,” Ahmed told IRIN.

“But it is now our duty to prepare these children for secondary school where they are expected to learn in Arabic.”

DAFI scholarships

But not all Kharaz children are destined for a life of cheap labour.

Despite spending most of his childhood in Kharaz camp and learning in classes of up to 60 students, Abdurahman Fareh, 26, from Mogadishu, has recently graduated with a degree in Business Administration from Aden University and is now working for Save the Children.

In Yemen, Somali refugees are subject to the same university fees as other foreign students living in the country, which can cost up to $1,200 a year.

But Abdurahman was lucky. He chanced upon a DAFI scholarship, a programme funded by the German government and coordinated in Yemen by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and Save the Children which supports tertiary education for deserving refugees worldwide.

“I started a new life when I received that scholarship. I’m now working to support the refugee community that I came from,” Abdurahman told IRIN.

Last year 60 Somali students received DAFI scholarships to study at universities in Yemen, costing at a total of $145,641.

Basateen - an alternative approach?

The Basateen slum - a shanty town on the outskirts of Aden - is more squalid than Kharaz, but Somalis there are less isolated and can at least seek casual work in Aden.

Somali refugees in Kharaz camp, Yemen 201101251234230693
Photo: Tom Finn/IRIN
Somali girls practice their English in the primary school at Kharaz Camp. In a few years some of them will be sent by their parents to work as house maids or beg on the streets of Aden
UNHCR and its partner agencies working with Somali tribal elders do their best to combat social stresses in Basateen with micro-credits and self-reliance projects that help some women feed their children, even when their husbands have vanished.

But some are overwhelmed and even ask to return to Kharaz where they can get UN assistance. All need relief from the penury that fuels domestic violence and sometimes commercial sex work.

"Sometimes young girls come to Yemen dreaming of a better life or of going to Saudi Arabia," said Aisha Said, a UNHCR social worker. "If they fail, maybe they do this prostitution or survival sex, but I can't tell you how many do it."

“It is our ambition that Kharaz and other camps like it are not established as a long-term solution. But for the time being Kharaz offers a solution to cover the essential basic needs: here refugees can at least find shelter, food and clean water,” said the commissioner.

“Up to 50,000 new refugees arrive in Yemen every year. We should therefore work to improve the camps, and to turn them into a starting point for refugees to move towards a better future - integration in urban areas, and access to schools and jobs.”

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