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Haani Ochalla

In the current world, every corner of the earth is filled with refugees, often times living in enclosed camps. This hit too close to home for me, being a refugee for the majority of my life. I was born in Gambela, Ethiopia, my ancestral home that is supposed to be a utopia for me, or so I thought. It was not long before we had to be forced out of our own homes and flee. Ethnic cleansing, tribal conflict and an attempted genocide on the Anywaa community in 2003, left us with no choice but to run away.I was only five when the reality of being a refugee knocked on my doorstep. The innocence, enthusiasm and adventurous nature a child has was stripped from me. 


On December 13,2003, what was supposed to be a typical Saturday, turned out to be a turning point in my life and that of the Anywaa tribe in Ethiopia. Armed militia groups launched an attack on us early afternoon, with the goal of murdering all the educated men and people in power in the Anywaa community of Gambela. By the end of the day, over 400 men had been massacred, properties, businesses were burnt to the ground.


Refugees go through a lot of trauma and how these experiences affect their mental health is something that needs to be taken seriously.At five years old, I saw dead bodies with various injuries from gunshot wounds, to being slashed with machetes, to being burnt alive, to being stabbed and even being exposed to handheld explosives. By the time I left Ethiopia, I had already experienced not one but numerous wars. I do not know what it feels like to grow up without those experiences. I learnt to just accept things and move on with life. I have been lucky to not experience the traumas after fleeing Ethiopia. Over time, the images and experiences became part of my past. I can tell the details of the horrific events like they happened yesterday. The only thing missing, is the emotional attachment. This could be due to the fact that I went through these experiences as a kid who’s brain was still developing and overtime I unconsciously put those memories in the back of my mind. One thing for sure, is that it has made me resonate with others who have gone through traumatic experiences or going through them. 


Over the years, I have learnt to appreciate everything in life. Having seen people lose their lives has made me cautious in how I carry out myself. It has made me see other problems as they could be tackled so long as I am still breathing.


As a refugee, you get to hear many stories of survival and near death experiences from other peers. This has made me look at my experiences as less severe than others. It is a coping mechanism and a way to console each other. Community wise, the Anyuak(Anywaa) are known for being very compassionate. The name Anywaa(Anyuak)simply translates to ‘to share’. This could mean anything, food, shelter, clothing and any other possessions that could be shared with friends, family and neighbours. In as much as it is a trait that has kept us going for generations, it does not cover the mental health part of it. We tend to care about the surface level and making sure our peers are okay with the basic needs required for survival. It leaves one wondering why that is the case. Could it be because we share almost entirely the same traumatic experiences? Could it be because we still face the same challenges everyday as were those before us?


For refugees, we just want a place where we can call home without worrying whether we will lose it. When refugees are relocated, many things run through our minds. Are we welcome here? Do I feel like I belong? Am I safe here? Is this permanent or could I be on the move again in future? These are all questions that refugees constantly think about. 


Globally, United Nations through UNHCR, is responsible for the safety and resettlement of refugees. Having gone through this experience, United Nations only goes as far as providing temporary housing, food and education . There has never been focus on the health and mental stability of refugees. This should be top priority being that the experiences refugees went through are life shattering.


A sense of community goes a long way. When refugees are resettled, they are often at times put in places where there are already members of their tribe/community. This helps being that many a times, refugees have lost family members. From partners, to parents, to friends, to kids. The community becomes family for those who have lost their loved ones. The best way to help refugees in terms of mental health is through counselling for the traumatic experiences. 


Another positive approach is to present refugees with opportunities. These could range from jobs, education, affordable housing, and community centres. Refugees want to work and live like every other member of society in the places they are resettled in. The only difference is that these are troubled individuals that need special attention to get to that goal of independence, security and a sense of belonging.


As a refugee, I long for that day where the traumatic experiences I went through are nothing but memories, with the security that they will not happen again, either to me or anyone else.