Yesterday I saw my first refugee camp.
One of the other toubabs on campus, Jessica, is doing her research project on the Mauritanian refugees in Senegal. I have always wanted to (and still plan on) working with refugees in some capacity in the future. I read a little bit about the situation of refugees in Senegal while working at the Refugee service in Madison, but I didnt really know the whole situation.
In 1989, due to ethnic clashes in the border region between Senegal and Mauritania, black African Mauritanians were forced into exile across the river in Senegal. In return, many Arab Senegalese were expelled from their territorry into neighboring Mauritania. Refugee camps were set up in a few villages along the border, where the refugees still live today. You can read a more complete story here:
Anyway, I knew that the refugees camps existed close to me in St Louis, but I wasn't sure where. Jessica and I talked about going and doing some interviews and figuring out the situation, and we finally went yesterday.
Last week, a UNHCR truck rolled on to campus and I had the opportunity to talk to the man who works for the High Commissioner for Refugees in Dakar. He told me about their bureau in Ross Bethio, a town nearby, and of the refugee camp in Dagana, about 2 hours away. Very interesting conversation. Jess and I decided it was time to go. .
We got up early and went to the Gare Routiere. We waited 3 hours for a Sept Place taxi to fill up to take us to neighbiring Dagana, but we were determined to fulfill this mission: we were going to find this cache-cache refugee camp.
The journey was full of adventure...on the way we saw dust tornadoes in the desert, as well as packs of wild camels, and a rainstorm (!). In Dagana, we were dropped off at the middle-of-nowhere gar routiere. This city reminds me of those ghost towns you see in old westerns, or something out of John Steinbeck's The Wayward Bus. It was pretty empty and quiet. There was no public transportation except horses and buggies, so we took one to our friend Abdoullaye's house. Alhamdoulilah, Laye happened to be in Dagana that day (we had not planned this...just called on a whim), and he played our guide. We are so indebted to him, because this whole journey was pretty much improvisée.
Abdoulaye and two of his friends took us to the camp, which was about a 15 minute walk outside of town. In fact, it was pretty well-integrated with the community, and I didnt even know we had arrived until Laye said, ¨well, here we are¨.
Dagana Refugee Camp is a small community that has been in existence since the beginning of the conflict in 1989. I'd say there are about 200-300 Mauritanian refugees, but it's hard to keep track, because there are so integrated into the Dagana community. In the beginning, each family had a mud and thatch hut, next to the river and creepy abandoned butchery, with hooks still swaying in the wind. The UN and Refugees International have donated money and infrastructure to build a health center, high school, and elementary schools. When we visited, the first thing I noticed was just how well-installed the refugees here are. They have begun to construct homes and buildings out of cement bricks, and have a working civil system.
As we walked around the camp, we chatted with some refugees in Wolof. It is interesting to note just how integrated they are into the Senegalese culture. The real problem in this refugee situation is that many refugees do not have any form of identification. So, they are Mauritantian, having lived for 20 years in Senegal, unable to go back to their home country, and unable to become Senegalese citizens. What does this mean? They're here to stay.
Refugees are stateless. They are completely void of civil rights, because they are the responsibility of no country. According to the UN Declaration of Human Rights, all human beings are entitled to citizenship, so this is a serious problem. The children born in Senegal are entitled to Senegalese citizenship, but talking with the refugees, they still consider themselves completely Mauritatian.
The UNHCR has now started a program of ¨go and see visits¨, where some refugees can go back and visit their old communities in Mauritania, to be reassured that the situation is stable and that their government will welcome them back. The distrust of governments is a common trait I have remarked here in Africa. Rightly so.
I felt guilty walking through the refugee camp then just leaving again, not having accomplished anything. Am I allowed to ¨go and see¨ if I didn't pass out vaccines, I didn't dole out food, I didn't even dig a toilet? This is the wrong mentality. I went to go hear stories and see how the refugees really live, instead of just reading articles about it. The first step to peace, I learned this year, is listening. Everybody's got their something, and they just need to be heard.
Here, I am telling their story.
Jessica and I said goodbye to Abdoullaye, and began the ever-unsure journey back to St Louis. (transportation in Senegal is always a gamble). Waiting for the Sept Place at the Gare in Dagana, a giant fist fight broke out. Jessica and I just stood back, bemused. What an overwhelming day.
So much information all at once.
I'm so glad we went. I am so glad that we got to hear stories and see the reality. Maybe this is nothing and maybe it was selfish, but I am glad that Jess and I conquered one little mountain: if we can go hunting for refugee camps on a whim, we can certainly seek and find even more growth and experiences.