Diary from Dadaab: WFP's Dorte Jessen

Published on 26 October 2011

Dorte talks to Somali refugees at one of the reception centres in the Dadaab refugee camp, in eastern Kenya.

(Copyright: WFP/Dorte Jessen)

Dorte Jessen, a Danish national, worked as WFP's emergency coordinator in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya for  two months recently. Since June, the camp has absorbed tens of thousands of new arrivals from famine-stricken Somalia. Dorte's diary gives a taste of what her days were made up of: not just food rations and aid shipments, but also royal visits and a race for flip-flops.

COPENHAGEN --  During August and September this year, 41-year-old Dorte Jessen has been on a special assignment in the Horn of Africa. She worked in Dadaab refugee camp, in northeastern Kenya. The camp, currently home to 460,000 refugees, is usually the destination for Somali families fleeing the drought and famine conditions in the south of their country. Even now, there are still over 1,000 refugees pouring into Dadaab every day.

During her two months in Dadaab, which coincided with the peak in new arrivals, Dorte made notes about everything she saw. She has shared these experiences with us and allowed us to publish extracts from the diary.
 
6 August 2011 - Kitting up... 
Haven't slept right since I read the devastating story of a mother who walked for 4 days to safety and food in Kenya - 3 of her children didn't make it. High Energy Biscuits already loading in Pakistan, destined for Nairobi.  Stationed in Karachi, I feel the urge to go… Can't wait to join the fight against hunger raging in the Horn of Africa. Kitting up for deployment as we speak...
 
Champing at the bit...
Nairobi is the first stop on the way to Dadaab. There’s always an adjustment period of a few days when you arrive in a new mission - mostly spent absorbing briefs, before going deep field. The flight to Dadaab is operated by UNHAS (United Nations Humanitarian Air Service) and since the crisis, the flights fill up quickly. Looks like I might have to stay in Nairobi until the end of the week.
 
Finally, some traction!
This just got interesting...out of the blue a WFP car is going to Dadaab tomorrow. It’s an 8-hour slog but I’m prepared to see if I can get a seat...working on it....then discover I can get on the flight after all. Things are definitely looking up!

I am there…
Finally! I am in Dadaab! On my first full day, we go over to Dagahale Refugee Camp. Dadaab village is not sophisticated, however, compared with the camps (tented cities in the desert) it certainly is. Life is tough in the camps. Red dust everywhere.  Driving in a convoy, we can barely see the car 10 meters in front of us. In a tent there’s no escaping the heat or the dust.
 
Still fleeing?
Mostly women and children meet us as we walk through the reception centre. I see a mother who has just received Plumpy’sup – a specialized nutritious ready to eat food, provided to moderately malnourished children. She has a young child on her back – another one by her hand. Less than 3 meters from the distribution point, the mother puts down her box of Plumpy’sup, takes out a sachet, bites off the corner – and hands it to her 3-year old in tow, who starts eating the sweet paste straight from the package. They then continue walking – the little one barefoot – to their new temporary home. They don’t talk or express any emotion. They just keep walking. Still fleeing war or famine – maybe both.
 
An unwelcoming place
The desert is an unwelcoming place – all the more so for those fleeing famine or conflict, who have trekked for days, often weeks. The World Food Programme and its partner CARE are providing food and other assistance to all new arrivals. After initial recognition from the United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, each person gets a wristband and a 21-day food ration is issued on the spot. Upon final registration (by the Kenyan authorities) plus medical screening etc. the wristband is replaced by a ration card, and each Somali is given refugee status.
 
Over-crowded camps
It’s only once they’ve been officially registered that the newcomers can settle properly. Even then, the formal camps are over-crowded and people often resort to staying in their temporary make-shift tents on the outskirts. It’s a relief (forgive the pun) to know that camp extensions are underway.
 
How do children cope?
While the onset of this famine is recent, the refugee situation in Dadaab is not. I wonder how children cope after 10 years of refugee life. How do they stay honest and motivated? How do they stay polite, well-mannered, books under their arms, respectfully greeting their teachers? I will make an effort to understand.
 
Preparing for a genuine Crown Princess…
How do you prepare for a Royal visitor? Turns out, the same way you prepare for any visitor of significance…. Only with three times the amount of double-checking. I even found time to Google the Minister Søren Pind, and was pleased to find that he is known for being straight forward. My favorite kind.
 
The “real work”
Danish Refugee Council (DRC) hosted the delegation, which was kept fairly small. Several of the accompanying visitors had field experience and could appreciate the benefits of keeping the mission nimble. They wanted to see the “real work” – without interrupting too much. As they said, “small enough not to disrupt the ongoing work, and long enough to get a first hand impression of the real issues at hand. And to get a feel for the place.” That attitude, and the whole atmosphere around this very special delegation, made it all the more worthwhile for us aid-workers. That, and the fact that these visitors in particular brought news from a home-country far, far away…
 
Sharing the “love of our lives”
When you catch us in the field – doing what we love doing – you get a chance to sense the energy, the drive within these operations. It’s like we get the chance to share the ‘love of our lives’ with our guests.
 
Be yourself
The way to greet a royal visitor – as it turns out - is to just be yourself. Concentrate and focus on being completely present and that’s how we experienced them too. Once in that space, the briefing becomes a conversation, the labored details turn into charming levels of texture. The delegation found a flow and its’ own pace, its’ own life.  This way we got around malnutrition, various ways of treatment/prevention – and something the Crown Princess had been pondering: the actual logistics of transporting the food and non-food items for newly arrived refugees to their temporary shelters - which includes donkey-carts. The Minister (again completely in a candid side-bar conversation) shared how he had really noticed the vast improvement of the response and the structures since his last visit in October last year.
 
Just being there
The Crown Princess even took time to sit down and talk to the newly arrived refugees. She invested herself completely in being there for them. It was quite inspirational as the temptation is to rush. But she took the time. To just be there. To listen. Genuinely.  Can’t wait to show my Mother the pictures… Yep, I am sure any Danish person overseas in this position would have gotten subtle hints from their Mothers (read: subtle as a gun).
 
The race for flip-flops
The royal delegation has left the camp. But no time to rest. Have signed up for the run at the UNHCR-compound to fundraise for flip-flops for the local host community.  2.6 km in sand most of the way. I ended number 4. Didn’t give me a place on the podium. But still a lot of good energy. There are two things, I could not do in Pakistan; 1) run and 2) run in shorts.
 
At some point, you have to make a priority
My mother turns 60 this year. She’s got a twin-sister, who also turns 60 (I know, what are the odds!) and they have decided to have a 120 years birthday, and the entire family, warts and all, will be there. Thing is, that emergencies – especially the big ones – don’t always take into account timing and personal commitments. I guess at some point you have to make a priority. This time I am determined. I will make it home. Come rain or come shine.
 
Her Royal Highness Crown Princess Mary of Denmark, Patron of Danish Refugee Council and now former Development Minister Søren Pind visited Dadaab refugee camps in Kenya 27.8.2011.
 

 

 

User Experience Survey

about the author

Dorte Jessen

Dorte Jessen, 41, is usually stationed in Southern Pakistan’s Sindh Province, where she is WFP's area manager.