Out of sight : Displacement and survival in Gambella, Ethiopia

Blog by Oxfam
Published: 21st March 2024

Photo credit: Petterik Wiggers/Oxfam

Photo credit: Petterik Wiggers/Oxfam

Strength under the sun

A refugee's story of Hope - Liban Hailu

Under the 38 °C hot sun, Nyalok Alo, 27 is hard at work. With purpose etched on her face, she mixes sand and water to cement the front of her makeshift home at Kule refugee camp in Gambella, Western Ethiopia. Paying no mind to the heat, Nyalok continues making improvements to the small hut which she and her family calls home.For Nyalok, this is a labour of love, all in anticipation of the 2023 Christmas holidays. It may seem like a small task, but to her —her two children and elderly mother—it is the little semblance of normalcy that brings them happiness.

Life hasn't been easy for Nyalok. A single mother of two and living as a refugee with a disability from a past accident, she fled the turmoil of South Sudan in 2014 with nothing but her elderly mother and two children by her side. "I come from Nasser in the Upper Nile state of South Sudan," says Nyalok adding that "during the war, we had to flee to Gambella. It was a tough journey with many dangers along the way due to conflict, but it was a closer option, and given my disability, Gambella was a good option.” 

Like many, the journey to Gambella was long and treacherous. “We walked tirelessly, but we finally made it. "We were registered at the border and resettled here at Kule refugee camp."

Gambella is home to nearly 400,000 refugees forced from their homes in 2013 and it is one of the least developed and remote places in Ethiopia. Comparing life in Gambella to their past in South Sudan, Nyalok reflects on the stark differences. Her daily struggles are compounded by the lack of proper healthcare facilities and the constant threat of insecurity "Back home, we had our farms, our businesses. But here, as refugees, our options are limited, especially for someone like me, with a disability, it's challenging to do heavy activities such as walking longer distances to access water, or longer distances to fetch firewood due to my situation.”

Yet amidst the hardships of camp living where there is little in the way of comfort, Nyalok finds solace in the little blessings. "Having water nearby, thanks to Oxfam, has been a blessing," she says with gratitude. "I used to walk long distance, nearly two hours to access water and I could only carry 10 litre due to my back injury; it was not easy. I’m so happy I now have water closer to my home even if it's for just an hour a day, I’m grateful”. 

However, while the water system in Kule provides relief for Nyalok,  it risks exacerbating her situation due to the dwindling funds to maintain the aging water infrastructure which has been operational since 2014. "The water supply is becoming increasingly unreliable," Nyalok notes with worry. "And without proper access to clean water, our health is at risk and would mean walking even longer distances to access this precious commodity”.

 Oxfam has been supporting refugees in Gambella with clean and safe water for drinking since 2014, however due to the dwindling funds as well as aging infrastructure the existing water supply system is proving insufficient to meet the existing needs. This is turn leads to potential water scarcity and compromised access to clean water. On some days, the water system can barely deliver 5 to 6 litres of water per person which falls far short of the required standards of 15 L per day.  

Despite the challenges, Nyalok is grateful for the water at her doorstep and her job is to ensure her children and elderly mother have access to water for drinking and sanitation. Her primary concern remains providing food for her family. "We rely on whatever we can find, but it's not enough. For the last eight months, we were told food was suspended, so nothing has been coming, forcing us to pick and eat leaves from the forest," says Nyalok.
As more refugees come to Gambelladue to drought, floods and conflict, the strain on resources only grows. "It is tough," Nyalok says, her voice tinged with concern. "But we hold onto hope, hoping for a better tomorrow."
As the day draws to a close, Nyalok and her mother huddle together, preparing their evening meal, the first and only one of the day for her family and herself. “We are used to this, we just need a meal to survive because we cannot risk not saving enough for the next day, so this is our breakfast, lunch, and dinner” explains Nyalok pointing at the green basin that her mother is preparing while she gets the fire ready. For many who have sought refuge here, it is a haven from conflicts that have not only uprooted them but also claimed the lives of their loved ones. Despite the hardships, there is hope that
things will get better and may one day return home.

Photo credit: Petterik Wiggers/Oxfam

Photo credit: Petterik Wiggers/Oxfam

Surviving the odds

Nyajany hopes for a future where everyone thrives - Fatuma Noor

In Tierkidi refugee camp, in Gambella, Western Ethiopia, 29-year-old Nyajany Gatwech prepares her routine trip to go to the market and buy vegetables that she sells to refugees from South Sudan. The business is helping Nyajany  to buy food and clothes for her three children and three nephews that she lives with. 

 Like thousands at the camp, Nyajany  was forced to flee her home in Malakal, South Sudan eight years ago with her children, nephews, and clothes on her back. They trekked for nearly a month from Malakal, Upper Nile state of South Sudan to the Ethiopian border town of Gambella facing hunger and conflict at every turn. 

  “The journey was not an easy one, I had small children, and I was alone since my husband stayed behind. Thank God we managed to get to the border safely” describes Nyajany .

Upon reaching Gambella, Nyajany  and her family were registered at the Barbiyo registration center. They were soon resettled at Tierkidi Refugee Camp, nestled amidst the verdant landscape of Gambella, —a temporary respite from the horrors they had left behind. Yet, life in the camp is a harsh reality check, where survival depends on meager food rations from the aid organizations.

“I left home due to the war, but the camp life is also very challenging. For one to live you need food and education, but those are the things that we don’t have here at the camp. Food is never enough and at times we eat once a day until the next day.” she explains. 

Nyajany  explains that the lack of food is increasing insecurity at the camp with people stealing things to sell to get food. Desperate to improve her family’s situation, Nyajany sold her smartphone which she brought over from South Sudan to a member of the host community in Gambella.

“I got a little bit of money from selling my phone and used that money to buy vegetables from the host community, I then bring them back to the camp and sell them to the refugees at the camp who can’t walk long distances to the market. This has helped support me with food and clothes for my family” added Nyajany

However, despite some sort of semblance of stability, Nyajany’s  nephews always asked for the whereabouts of their mother. “I reached out to the Red Cross tracing program of my sister, I shared the only passport photo I had of my sister with my number, they managed to get her, she called me and we spoke. She promised to find us but that has not happened until now, I don’t know what has happened to her up to now” adds Nyajany

Reflecting on her life before the camp, Nyajany  recalls a time of peace and stability. “Things are very different now,”

Roughly 375,000 refugees from South Sudan live in Ethiopia’s western Gambella Region—of this number 87% are women and children and 63% are under age 18.

Since 2014, Oxfam has been providing support to the refugees with clean water, sanitation, and hygiene as well as gender and protection services. Working with communities, Oxfam provides water by tapping into the nearby Baro River to supply and distribute treated water through a network of pipes to taps in the camps and neighbouring host communities. This is ensuring people like Nyajany  have access to water but the lack of  essential supplies like jerrycans and poor maintenance of water points, due to lack of funding, is hampering these efforts. 

 The increase  in the refugee population, now also escaping the conflict in Sudan, and in host communities, intensified the pressure on the clean water supply system . This leads to the breaking down of essential  infrastructure, while lack of funding makes the maintenance difficult and  exacerbates the situation.

 For Nyajany  her hope extends beyond her own family's well-being. While she strives to provide the best for her family, her ultimate aspiration is to witness a better future for all in her community where necessities like food, clean water, and education are not just dreams but accessible realities.


Photo credit: Petterik Wiggers/Oxfam

Empowered Woman

Nyawouw's advocacy for women and girls in Tierkidi refugee camp - Fatuma Noor

In the heart of Tierkidi, a refugee camp nestled in Gambella in Western Ethiopia, a group of men gather next to a grass-thatched hut called “tukuls” in South Sudan. They are in a deep discussion about the election of new camp representatives and other issues that affect the community.

Among the men talking loudly, stands one solitary women - 42-year-old- Nyawouw, a refugee from South Sudan whose role is to–represent the women's voices at the meeting. 

Nyawouw says that it is not always easy for women to be in these spaces where camp decisions are made. “In these gatherings, it is my job to make sure women's voices are well represented,” she says, determined to defend the interests of women and girls in the camp.

"I speak on issues that affect many women such as insecurity, and forced marriage which are very common among others," she explains.Before such meetings, Nyawouw gathers women at her home to hear from them on issues they would want her to highlight at the gathering.  

Despite comprising 70% of the camp's population, refugee women like Nyawouw face a myriad of challenges, from long and dangerous perilous journeys deep into the forest in search of firewood to assuming the burdens of taking care of their children and elderly who also had to flee the conflict in their homeland in South Sudan. 

In Gambella, in addition to providing water, hygiene, and sanitation activities, Oxfam also works closely with refugee-led organizations to protect the rights of the refugees by addressing issues such as gender-based violence and protection.

"Survival for many here often hangs by a thread. We’ve got limited options for work as refugees and at most times we rely on support from aid organisations like Oxfam and others to provide for our children” explains  Nyawouw. 

With the food rations and support dwindling, and limited work opportunities, most women refugees  have to look for alternative ways to feed their children,  like fetching and selling firewood. However, even this is not without challenges. 

“To survive and provide for their children, women walk long distances in search of firewood and water which always puts them at risk of sexual violence.”

At Tierkidi, one of seven refugee camps in Gambella and home to nearly 70,000 refugees displaced from the conflict in South Sudan, Nyawouw knows of numerous cases of women who survived serious assault. She  worked with them to find them the medical and psychological services they need.

“Some women are forced into early marriage due to hunger; others are beaten by their husbands and others face violence during the long walk. I come in to help, deal with the cases as well as take those who have been assaulted to get the help from some agencies” explains Nyawouw. 

Nyawous says that when she speaks to women, she also helps them to be more independent, so they do not have to rely on men if they find themselves in an abusive relationship. 

Previously, Oxfam was able to provide dignity kits to women refugees. These include menstrual clothes, soap, jerrycans and other hygiene items. Nyawouw however, notes that women have not been receiving the support due to funding cuts by Oxfam and other aid organisations.

In addition, the food suspension for the latter half of 2023 has further exacerbated insecurity issues with many stealing to survive.  

“The impact of the food pause was very tough for us. Many children died and it was getting worse until food resumed”

Nyawouw is among the hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese people who came to Ethiopia when fighting broke out in South Sudan. On arrival, Nyawouw struggled to settle but now, despite the fact that her day-to-day life continues to be challenging, she derives much satisfaction as a woman leader because she has great hopes for the future and the women of South Sudan.

Nyathak Chuol fixing Oxfam constructed water point in Gambella ensuring Refugees in Gambella have access to water

Photo credit: Petterik Wiggers/Oxfam

Water Engineer

One refugee’s commitment to ensuring water access for fellow refugees in Gambella Liban Hailu

At Pinyudo, a refugee camp in Gambella, Western Ethiopia next to a solar-powered water tank , Nyathak is busy assembling a generator. As she fidgets with the intricate machinery , she manoeuvres some pipes around the generator, determined to fix the machine as she has done countless of times before. 

Despite lacking formal engineering training, Nyathak shoulders the responsibility of managing the Oxfam-supported generator, ensuring that other refugees at the Pinyudo camp, which is home to 51,229 people, have access to clean water.

To do this work, Nyathak has had to teach herself after observing previous engineers including her husband work on the machines. Seeing her expertise at handling the equipment, you’d mistake her for a real engineer. 

“I’m not a trained engineer; my husband was working here but he had to leave and go back to South Sudan. I was left here with the children, unable to go back home due to the conflict and starvation there, so I had to learn to make a living here.”

Nyathak says that due to her job, her days are long and demanding. The water demand surpasses the system's capacity and any break down is a problem for hundreds of thousands of people. Community members turn to her whenever the pipes fail, and she always attends to them ensuring water is available for the people here. 

In the sprawling Gambella region of Western Ethiopia, home to over 375,000 South Sudanese refugees, access to clean water is a pressing concern. Oxfam's efforts, drawing water from the nearby Baro River, are critical in meeting this need. The water system operates using solar power during the day and switches to fuel at night. However, due to the strain of serving more people than anticipated, disruptions occur. Nyathak's knowledge and experience becomes invaluable in maintaining the water supply.

 “When the community faces a problem, they will look for me and inform me that the pipe is not working. I will go and fix it.  I open the water tap at 10:00 AM for the community. Yet, other community routines need my attention. I can be requested at any time until evening time.”

Known as 'Mama Pipeline' to the other refugees, Nyathak's dedication has earned her the respect of all. So deeply intertwined is her identity with her work that she proudly named her son with the name 'Pipeline,' a tribute to her passion for her work. 

 “Everyone referred to us as “Pipeline”, so we decided why not just name our child this name, and now we have a son called “Pipeline,” she explains as she smiles. 

 Due to the shrinking funding, maintaining the systems has been a challenge for Oxfam who is grappling with the challenge of ensuring the sustainability of these vital systems amidst financial constraints.

Journey to Ethiopia

Nyathak says her journey to Gambella, Ethiopia, was marked by loss and difficulty. Together with her five children, she sought refuge in Ethiopia in 2015 after the conflict broke out in South Sudan.,They experienced the harsh realities of hunger on their way.  

The mother of six shares much more than a love of helping the community. Like other refugees here, the scars of war run deep, robbing her family not only of their home but also of opportunities for education and a better future for her children. Yet, amidst the chaos, Nyathak hopes that things will get better and can be reunited with her other family members displaced elsewhere during the war.