Activities for refugees at the JRS Refugee Community Centre Activities for refugees at the JRS Refugee Community Centre  

Ethiopia: JRS assisting and supporting Refugee Integration

With a population of over one million refugees and asylum seekers, Ethiopia is the second-largest refuge host country in Africa. The Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) works to support refugees by offering various programs and services that promote integration.

Christian Kombe, SJ – Addis Ababa

JRS works with people forced to flee their homelands and the challenges that entails. Refugee testimonies illustrate the daily hardships and successes achieved through JRS support.

The just-ended 2024 World Refugee Day emphasised inclusion and solidarity with refugees, highlighting the importance of reaching out to those forced to flee their countries. The Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) team in Ethiopia has various services and initiatives. Apart from basic needs, refugees need help integrating into the host community.

The situation of refugees in Ethiopia

“Currently, Ethiopia hosts more than one million refugees from different nationalities and countries, mainly neighbouring African countries,” explains Solomon Bizualem Brhane, Country Director of JRS Ethiopia.

According to figures provided by the UNHCR for May 2024, there are  1 043 667 refugees and 8,251 asylum seekers in the country. Most of these are from South Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea, and Sudan. They have fled ongoing conflicts in their countries of origin. However, Ethiopia also hosts, in smaller numbers, people from Kenya, Yemen, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and even Syria -making it the second-largest host country for refugees in Africa after Uganda.

The Jesuit Refugee Service in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
The Jesuit Refugee Service in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Fleeing war and armed conflict

While various forms of natural disasters and untenable environmental conditions, such as oppressive political regimes, force people to leave their countries, war and armed conflict remain the main reasons driving people to seek refuge elsewhere. “I came to Ethiopia in 2005 because of the war,” says Florida Macumo, a Burundian refugee benefiting from JRS programmes targeting urban refugees in Addis Ababa. The same reasons pushed Kwan Akol to leave South Sudan in 2001 when the country was still united with neighbouring Sudan.

A diversified response to refugee needs

“JRS operates in Addis Ababa and the Dolo Ado refugee camp in the Somali Regional State,” explains Bizualem Brhane. In urban areas and camps, JRS offers assistance and integration programmes, including non-formal education, language courses, recreational initiatives, income-generating activities, emergency aid, child protection, and psychosocial services.

This range of programmes provides refugees with personalised and community support, enabling them to receive training, acquire skills, and regain a sense of normalcy despite their many challenges. The organisation also develops initiatives to promote reconciliation and cohesion within refugee communities, often marked by conflicts that have roots in their countries of origin.

Starting a new life as a refugee

Aline Ingabire, originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, arrived in Ethiopia in 2012 after losing family members during an armed conflict. She recalls the moment vividly when, accompanied by her brother, exhausted after a long journey through Uganda and Kenya, she arrived in Addis Ababa. First JRS provided her with initial basic services from a refugee camp, and later as an urban refugee living in Addis Ababa.

“When I arrived at the camp, we started a new life. We registered, and they showed us where to live with other refugees from my country. We stayed in the camp for about five years. But there were also problems in the camps. Refugees did not get enough food, and the water was insufficient,” recalled Aline.

Since 2018, Aline has lived in Addis Ababa with her sister but has lost track of her brother. She participates in women’s activities and benefits from JRS assistance.

The Jesuit Refugee Service in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
The Jesuit Refugee Service in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Integration and support

Refugee integration into the host community is a priority for JRS, says Hanna Petros, the Project Director of the JRS Refugee Community Centre (RCC) in Addis Ababa. Integration efforts involve the host community participating in programmes set up for refugees, such as vocational training and non-formal education, language courses (Amharic and English), music, and computer classes.

“As a refugee, I have faced many problems, but when I arrived at JRS, I received education and various types of learning: English, computing, music, which helped me a lot in my life,” says Sarah Tesfaye, who left her native Eritrea five years ago.

Kwan Akol, who managed to pursue higher education in Ethiopia thanks to a UNHCR scholarship and obtained a degree in Social Anthropology, is a regular at the Refugee Community Center. He found there a vocation as an English teacher. He has collaborated with JRS for three years, helping other refugees integrate through communication skills.

Qamar Ali, a Yemeni refugee living in the Ethiopian capital since 2013, has also benefited from the opportunity to work with JRS. “Since I arrived here, it was a bit different due to the difference in culture and language. I found a position at JRS. I started by taking computer courses to improve my IT skills. Then, I discovered the childcare section here at JRS. I applied to become a children’s teacher,” she says.

To assist refugees through its various projects, JRS Ethiopia collaborates with multiple actors, notes Mr. Bizualem Brhane.” The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is the main donor for our urban program. We also collaborate with different religious congregations in Addis, including the Salesian Sisters, the Salesian Fathers, and the Missionaries of Charity.”

Living with challenges and adversity

However, challenges remain when it comes to assisting refugees in the Horn of Africa. For Bizualem Brhane, these included resource constraints and funding shortages in the humanitarian sector. Yet the number of refugees continues to rise. Sometimes, conflicts within Ethiopia pause new challenges in the humanitarian sector. Refugees face equally significant daily challenges despite JRS and other humanitarian organisations’ assistance.

“The problem we face here in Addis is life, which is very difficult. It is not easy to live here. We cannot find jobs. It is very difficult,” says Florida.

The lack of jobs pushes some to resort to the informal sector. In addition to economic difficulties, refugees, especially newcomers, also face long delays in registering or renewing documents required by the state, forcing them to settle in camps for long periods. This is an unsustainable option for many urban refugees due to the precarious living conditions prevailing there, testifies an Eritrean refugee under the cover of anonymity.

The Ethiopian Government, aware of these challenges, is working on initiatives to improve and offer more rights to refugees and asylum seekers, including integration into different national systems, said the Director of JRS Ethiopia.

Prospects for the future

Amidst the difficulties, “we still have many success stories,” says Hanna Petros, underlining, for example, the collaboration with the humanitarian corridor project that helps the most vulnerable refugees, about 500 so far, resettle in Italy. “We have advocated for refugees with many different cases. I think we touched their life through the livelihood programmes and assistance provided by our dedicated employees,” said Hanna.

The Jesuit Refugee Service is currently preparing its strategic plan for the next five years, aiming to expand its activities to other regions of Ethiopia. “We hope that JRS can expand in the coming years to meet the needs of refugees and asylum seekers in Addis Ababa and different regions of the country,” concludes the Country Director.

Many refugees, for their part, hope that their countries of origin may one day find peace, and the dream of returning home remains ever-present. However, in the meantime, some see Ethiopia as their second homeland where they can rebuild their lives. In contrast, others believe their journey for a better future continues beyond the Horn of Africa. They dream of reaching other horizons.


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25 June 2024, 15:43