At first glance, it is difficult to imagine that Fatmah, 15, a native of Niger, is already a mother of two, though early marriages are not uncommon among Nigeriens. Report by Natasha Scripture
Holding her youngest child, 10-month-old Assi, against her small frame, she looked anxious when she recalled the constant shelling that kept her up at night over the last few weeks. It ultimately drove her and her family to leave their home of more than five years in Sabha, Libya.
Escape from violence
“There was so much noise, the house was shaking. When it is peaceful again, we will go back. We didn’t want to leave Libya – we lived well there,” Fatmah told a UNICEF psychologist at Shousha transit camp, where she has been living since last Wednesday.
Fatmah, her husband and their two children will stay at the camp until they reluctantly board a plane take them back to Niger. There they will look for jobs and attempt to rebuild their family after years of living in a different country.
Another mother, Parvin, 19, arrived in Shousha last Thursday. She came by car from Tripoli with her husband and 11-month-old son Ali, along with all their belongings. They left when the escalating conflict caused sleepless nights for them too. “The baby was crying all night,” said Parvin, playing with Ali, who rolled around in their tent, adorned in pink second-hand clothes. “Now we will go back to Bangladesh and live with my husband’s family.”
Fatmah and Parvin are two of more than 3,300 people – mostly male migrant workers and their families – currently living at Shousha, one of the three camps in Ras Jdir on the Tunisia-Libya border. The camp was designed to provide temporary care for migrants – many of them from Niger and Sudan – as they receive assistance returning to their home countries.
More than 50 per cent of inhabitants currently living in the camp – such as Eritreans and Somalians – will not be repatriated back to their home countries due to on-going conflict and political instability in those places. In fact, for many, this is not the first time they are fleeing conflict.
UNICEF has a permanent presence at Shousha to ensure basic needs are met and that children are being cared for and protected. The agency continues to provide sanitation services, and make sure that families have access to safe drinking water and bathing facilities.
A UNICEF team of psychologists is on the ground, providing one-on-one counselling. They are particularly targeting unaccompanied children – there are currently 37 at the camp. The team also encourages families to utilize the child-friendly spaces it has helped set up with partner organization Save the Children. These chaperoned environments are intended to bring a sense of normalcy to the lives of children stranded at the border.
Furthermore, a UNICEF-funded school opened at Shousha on Tuesday where refugee children learn subjects such as English, Arabic and mathematics, and engage in recreational activities.
Keeping spirits up
Child-friendly spaces such as schools and play centres are important for children living in camps, as they encourage social interaction and provide a welcome respite from the monotony of the day.
In the meantime, camp inhabitants have been entrepreneurial with their surroundings, making the most of this interim period while they wait to be resettled.
“They’re motivated to do things. They’re bored. Their worries are not about food and shelter anymore, but about the future. They’re thinking ‘I’ll stay here but until when?’” explained Holyem Saidani, a UNICEF psycho-social worker at Shousha camp.
With immediate needs being met by UN agencies and partners, small luxuries such as a vendor stall, a shisha (flavoured tobacco) lounge and a make-shift cinema have sprouted up across the camp, providing for a bit of distraction and making each day that passes a little easier to bear.