Global refugee care

Already considered one of the most vulnerable populations, children and families in refugee camps are faced with a global pandemic

June 18, 2020

Q & A with Teddy Maru, Refugee Program Manager

Teddy Maru, a refugee program manager working in Ethiopia, shares insight into the world of unaccompanied children and families living in Gambella’s Refugee Camp during the coronavirus outbreak. Teddy shares how the pandemic has forced his team to be proactive in how they’re able to care for the refugee population living in Gambella’s camps in the safest way possible.

More than 26 million people are living in refugee camps as refugees who have been forced to flee their home countries because of violence, the color of their skin, their political beliefs, or their personal faith. There are many misconceptions. There are many myths. Today, we are talking to Teddy Maru, Bethany's refugee program manager in Ethiopia. Join us as we look at the world through his eyes, exploring the realities of the most vulnerable during the global pandemic.

I’d love for our listeners to learn a little bit more about the situation in Ethiopia. Why are there refugees in Ethiopia, and where are they coming from?

Ethiopia has a long-standing history of hosting refugees. Our country has an open-door policy for refugees, and Ethiopia has provided access to different humanitarian services and protection for refugees. Because of this, refugees frequently come to Ethiopia from countries like Iran, Syria, Sudan, South Sudan, and Yemeni. They come to this country mainly because of food insecurity, political instability in their country of origin, conflict, lack of human rights, and abuse.

Bethany works in the Pugnido Refugee Camp and the Gambella region of Ethiopia. Tell us more about the camp. Where's the camp located? What is it like to live there?

For the past three years, Bethany's been active in the Pugnido Refugee Camp. It’s the oldest refugee camp in the Gambella region in Western Ethiopia. It was established around 1990. Currently, there are more than 40,000 refugees living in the camp—the majority are women and children. Most families living in the refugee camps live in small huts that are made from mud. It's very challenging. It's very remote. Most refugees living in the camp have been there for almost 10 years.

How does Bethany help refugee children and families in Ethiopia?

Bethany provides mental health and psychosocial support and alternative family-based care to the people we serve in the refugee camps. Most refugees have experienced some form of torture, sexual abuse, or gender-based violence. Many of the people we serve have a history of trauma that affects their mental health and well-being. Our alternative family-based care focuses on unaccompanied children living in the camps. These children are at-risk and vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, neglect, and violence. We’re able to provide immediate and comprehensive resources to children and collaborate with other agencies that are working in the camps. We focus on preventing and minimizing family separation. We also provide awareness-raising activities and trauma-informed parenting training.

Let's talk about the impact that COVID-19 is having on the refugee camp. Are refugees in the Gambella and Pugnido camps able to practice social distancing and staying home?

As you can imagine, the impact of COVID-19 has been difficult. For example, refugees are living in small huts in the camps with five or six family members; it's very hard for them to practice social distancing. I would say it's a luxury for them to wash their hands for 20 seconds and use hand sanitizer. The impact of COVID-19 has been devastating in the refugee camps.

I can imagine that if COVID-19 were to reach the camp, it could spread very quickly because of the conditions that they're forced to live in as refugees. Has anyone in the camp been infected by COVID-19 yet?

So far, there have been no reports of identified cases. But we don't have that much capacity for testing compared to other countries. So, for the time being, we don't have any registered cases of the coronavirus, which I'm happy about to an extent.

Are there Bethany staff members who are serving families in the refugee camp? What are some of the safety measures and precautions that Bethany staff is practicing there?

We have staff serving in the camps as much as possible. We’ve provided orientations on how to protect themselves and keep themselves from this virus. We’ve also provided our staff with personal protective equipment. They follow strict regulations when they travel to the camps to communicate with refugees. They're advised to keep practicing social distancing and to use personal protective equipment and hand sanitizer.

What are some of the questions that refugees are asking Bethany staff about the pandemic?

The refugee population is very large. We’ve discovered a way to raise mass awareness by using a sound system attached to our vehicle. So, while we are visiting and working in the camps, we use the sound system to raise awareness of COVID-19 and the precautions to take, like washing your hands with soap.

So, you want to share this important information about ways to stay healthy. What would you say is your biggest concern?

People are scared and want to protect themselves from this danger. But there isn’t enough personal protection equipment or supplies available to keep refugees safe. At the same time, shortage of funding is a problem, and their rations are declining. The amount of food and certain health services are declining. It is a matter of life and death for these families. So, not only is personal protective equipment necessary, but they’re also concerned about overall care.

Refugees in these camps rely upon the services of agencies like Bethany, and the U.N.H.C.R. (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) to meet the daily needs for their families to live. And as countries around the world are responding to the global pandemic within their own borders, it's limiting the amount of money to support refugees. There are 71 million displaced people around the world. What else can the international community be doing to help refugees right now?

The most important thing the international community can do for refugees is to advocate for their needs. Or, you can financially support refugee programs like those provided by Bethany, providing life-sustaining services the people we work with.

What about people who are thousands of miles away from Gambella and who may feel helpless, but they want to make a difference—how can they support refugee families during this time?

The smallest gift amount matters. Your generosity can bring significant change for the refugee populations we serve. It helps us to better reach refugee families and foster children living in the camps.

Our listeners and readers can go to Bethany.org/Ethiopia and give a gift that will support programs like Bethany's refugee services in the Pugnido Refugee camp that are serving South Sudanese children and families. What is one thing you want Americans to know about refugees in Ethiopia?

Things are getting complicated for every citizen because of COVID-19. And we can only imagine the effect COVID-19 will have on refugees. So, what I would like to say is this: please think about the refugees. They are living in a tough situation and in different remote areas. Your gifts of generosity can make a difference in their lives. I’d like to encourage all of you to think what you can do to help.

Our faith calls us to look outside of ourselves and to consider our neighbors—our neighbors who are as far away as the Pugnido Refugee Camp in Ethiopia. Thank you for that challenge to broaden our horizons and to think about the most vulnerable among us, even if they're not in our own communities.

If you'd like to learn more about Bethany's work with refugees, visit Bethany.org/RefugeesAroundtheWorld. You can also follow us on Facebook or search for Bethany on Twitter or Instagram.