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The calm in the storm

Winnipegger is mayor, fixer and social worker in the world's largest refugee camp

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Ahmed Warsame is well-liked and and respected by both refugees and members of the local community. A refugee salutes him while he drives around Dadaab.


Ahmed Warsame is well-liked and and respected by both refugees and members of the local community. A refugee salutes him while he drives around Dadaab. Photo Store

DADAAB, Kenya -- In one of the most volatile places in the world, a Winnipegger casually travels the maze of roads that breaks up a mass of humanity.

Men are quick to shake his hand; women greet him with "Salaam alaikum."

His name is Ahmed Warsame and he carries the rather ordinary title of operations manager. But his is no ordinary job -- he is responsible for the safety of about 360,000 people.

And this place -- Dadaab, the world's largest refugee camp -- is no ordinary place.


It began providing refuge to Somalis fleeing a civil war in 1991. After famine followed the fighting, its population has grown to 357,392 in five camps -- from Dagahaley to the north to Ifo, Ifo II, Hagadera and Kambioos in the south. The camps cover 50 square kilometres and are within an 18-kilometre radius of the town of Dadaab.

It's a big city of tents and makeshift huts -- some of metal, some of sticks, some of mud -- in a Kenyan desert, but without a big-city budget, infrastructure or benefits. "In a normal western country, there'd be a heavy government structure," he says.

Warsame works for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. He has a $46-million budget to cover the five camps -- the target was $70 million.

"It's not enough," says the soft-spoken man who has worked for the UNHCR in trouble spots around the world for the last 25 years. He has been the operations manager in Dadaab for two years.

The man who carries the ordinary title feels the weight of generations of frustrated refugees who can't safely go home to nearby Somalia and are not welcome to set down roots in Kenya. "Where is home?" is the big question they face, he says.

In Somalia, there is the ever-present threat from the terrorist group Al Shabaab. In Kenya, there are kidnappers and bandits who target aid workers, Kenyan police and innocent refugees.

And he feels the weight of dealing with a host community that's resentful of the refugees using up natural resources and getting services and supports the locals don't. So UNHCR lends a helping hand to that community, too. Thousands outside the UNHCR mandate depend on them for help with hospitals and schools.

If UNHCR didn't help?

"A major socio-economic collapse would occur," he says.

Disease rates would go up and education rates would go down. A volatile locale would become even more hostile. But so far, it hasn't.

"In one year and five months, I'm happy to say there has not been one single incident as a result of civil unrest," says Warsame, who is well-known and popular with both the host community and refugees. "We want to create and maintain a healthy community coexistence. It's important to maintain healthy relationships for the security of the UNHCR and the (non-governmental organizations)."

Warsame starts his day online checking his mail.

Meanwhile, outside his office, there's a lineup of people waiting to see him before he gets in. They have questions to ask and want decisions made.

Every morning there's a security briefing about what's happened in the camps the night before.

"My main job is to make sure the camps are safe and secure," says the 52-year-old Somali-born Canadian.

But the biggest chunk of his time is spent accounting for things.

"There is endless and demanding donor reporting," Warsame says.

He attends donor meetings by video link. Meanwhile, he says, UNHCR is struggling to keep up with advances in accounting and auditing that are getting increasingly high-tech.

On this day, he attends a graduation ceremony for refugees trained as community health workers and checks out the registration of hundreds of refugees. He gives a reporter a tour of the newest refugee camp, a hospital, a high school and vocational school for host community youth, an NGO warehouse and then meets with elected camp representatives and Dadaab aid agencies housed next door to the UNHCR. Later in the day, he has more meetings -- with UNHCR staff, an NGO -- then a farewell function for a colleague leaving the next day to work at a field office in neighbouring Ethiopia.

The first stop on this day is the refugee registration centre.

The Kenyan government recently decided to allow more refugees who'd been staying at the camps to register formally. Close to 800 Somalis, Congolese and South Sudanese had lined up for two days at the newest Dadaab camp -- Ifo II -- to begin the process.

The camp was a direct result of the 2011 famine and drought.

"We were receiving 2,600 (refugees) a day -- 80 per cent of whom were women and children," says UNHCR field officer Henok Ochala. "They were severely malnourished."

The registration process is in a series of sheltered areas, starting with vaccinating children, security checks and biometric and fingerprint scans. Their identity records are entered into Kenyan government and UNHCR databases.

Once registered, they'll receive their allotment of space, which depends on family size, and ration cards for maize and flour, which also depends on how many mouths they have to feed.

While people in the camps rely on food assistance, it is very limited.

"The World Food Programme meets 60 per cent of their needs," Warsame says.

The rest and extras, such as milk and sugar, are provided thanks to small jobs and businesses that spring up in the camps and through "lifelines in Canada" -- the loved ones sending them money.

The graduation of reproductive and preventive health workers trained by the Kenyan Red Cross is our next stop. Sixty men and women from the camps completed a 20-week program of classroom, technical and practical training. When it comes to reproductive health in a male-dominated culture, the Red Cross knew it had to get the men on board. They completed the "champions for reproductive health" program.

"There is no way to have a successful program without them on our side," Red Cross Dr. Beldina Gikundi says at their graduation ceremony.

Warsame congratulated the graduates, thanking the men for supporting women's education.

"Educating women and girls is beneficial to the community."

Less that 50 per cent of women in Dadaab finish school because they get married at a young age. The UNHCR pays incentives to refugee girls to finish school, which helps with resettlement and their chance of getting a job. "The word went out far and wide girls will have opportunity for employment," he says.

The grads include "safe motherhood promoters" trained to encourage women to breastfeed and deliver their babies in hospital rather than the camps.

Too many children were being harmed by "destructive deliveries" and prolonged labour in home births, says Christine Simiyu, the matron of the Ifo II hospital. Epilepsy, cerebral palsy and club feet were also common.

In the post-natal ward, a healthy newborn lay beside her mother who suffered pre-eclampsia, dangerously high blood pressure. Simiyu said 86 per cent of the babies born in the refugee camp are now delivered in the hospital.

The health workers promote breastfeeding and push for immunizations. A popular myth in the camps of Dadaab was that giving newborns sugar-water rather than breast milk made them smarter, she says. The babies were ending up with diarrhea and lowered immunity to disease as a result.


After the hospital, it's off to a CARE Canada food distribution training session with some elected leaders.

"We're expecting you to monitor and make sure beneficiaries are getting what they're entitled to," they're told. They need to be on the lookout for food scoopers who may be getting tired and unintentionally shortchanging refugees, or who are hot and dripping sweat on the food, which creates hygiene issues.

One of the Ifo camp elected officials asks Warsame why UNHCR services and programs aren't offered on Sundays instead of Fridays, the majority Muslim holy day of rest.

"Sunday is a rest day for this nation," Warsame says, reminding them they're in Kenya, not Somalia.

Emergency services are still available to the refugees on Sunday, Warsame says to the man who doesn't want to let the issue go.

Walking back to the vehicle, Warsame says he likes meeting face-to-face with community leaders to get direct feedback on what's working or not.

"I joined the UNHCR long before there was email. I like direct dialogue."


-- -- --


The UNHCR at Dadaab has a staff of 160 -- 140 Kenyan nationals and 20 international -- as well as 3,000 community workers. The UNHCR pays $150 to $170 a month to community health and social workers recruited and trained from the refugee population.

Meanwhile, locals have a stake in alerting authorities when trouble is brewing or criminal and terrorist groups are in their midst.

"A lot of our security depends on neighbourhood trust and community acceptance. They're our eyes and ears outside this perimeter."

Last fall, to keep the peace inside the refugee camps, Warsame organized the first elections in a decade. Voter turnout to elect the male and female representatives from each of the camps was high.

"We were counting ballots until 3 a.m.," Warsame recalls.

Now residents are assuming some leadership and control of the place where they live, but hold no claim to. Warsame meets with the camps' leaders regularly to find out what's going on, where's the trouble and if aid is getting where it's supposed to go. The community leaders will decide, for instance, where to locate the 750 solar-powered streetlights the Canadian government funded.

When it comes to preventing trouble in Dadaab, Warsame has an edge. He knows the language. He grew up in Somalia before civil war ripped the country apart. He can communicate with the people he's helping.

"It's great -- he can speak to them in their mother tongue," says Silja Osterman, a UNHCR communications staffer in Dadaab.

When fire swept through the Ifo market and destroyed the meagre livelihoods of so many refugees, he was there to assure folks the heart of the community -- the hub of people's daily lives -- would rise from the ashes. The small shops and services that make life in the camps bearable are crucial to the stability of the place.

"He went there to talk to the community," Osterman says. "He guaranteed there'd be support to rebuild."

Since his arrival in Dadaab, Warsame has won over staff who work in the isolated compound. Before he arrived, people had to trudge through deep sand paths to get around the sprawling UNHCR property. It was like walking through snow, says Amani Kishonge. Sand got tracked inside everywhere, said the assistant compound manager. Warsame had the pathways paved. It was a simple, cosmetic improvement that lifted people out of the sand and it lifted their spirits, said Kishonge.

"You feel good -- you feel clean."


-- -- --


Warsame works 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. most days. He has an air-conditioned cottage in the UNHCR compound at Dadaab and a cook named Boniface -- but it's not home.

"I miss Tim Hortons, Starbucks, nice summer walks and talking with people along the way," says the family man with a home in Richmond West. "I miss the CBC and weather reports. In Canada, I'm always weather-conscious."

His wife and two youngest children live in Nairobi during the school year and he joins them every other weekend. The family spends summers in Winnipeg, where their two oldest daughters and his mother-in-law live.

He's considering hanging up his UNHCR hat and spending more time with his family and Winnipeg neighbours.

"I miss the hospitality and friendliness starting from the airport when the customs officers at the border say 'Welcome home.' "


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 21, 2014 D8

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