In Ethiopia: The Plight Of South Sudanese Refugees Up Close And Painful

As field monitor for WFP Ethiopia's Gambella office, Pereleth Othieing is putting in marathon hours in the refugee camps and border points of western Ethiopia. His task: making sure the hundreds of South Sudanese refugees pouring into the country daily receive the food and nutritional assistance they desperately need. So far, nearly 150,000 South Sudanese have sought asylum in western Ethiopia, since conflict erupted in their homeland in December, 2013. 

GAMBELLA, Ethiopia - Weak, sick and utterly exhausted, the toddler died minutes after crossing the border into Ethiopia. He had walked for days under a scorching sun. Of the thousands of South Sudanese who have crossed into Ethiopia, this single snapshot of suffering is what haunts Pereleth Othieing most.

"He was about two-and-a-half years old," recalls Othieing, a WFP field monitor based in Ethiopia's western Gambella region. "He had to walk because his mother was carrying a younger, sicker child. He died right away. It was shocking."

A tall and slender man with a flashing smile, 30-year-old Othieing has seen plenty of misery this year. Tens of thousands of South Sudanese have crossed into Gambella since mid-December and, for the moment, there is no end in sight. Despite two ceasefire agreements and warnings of looming famine in South Sudan, fighting continues to tear apart the world's youngest nation. Humanitarian officials predict Gambella may host up to 350,000 South Sudanese refugees by the year's end.

Doing everthing to help, no matter how long it takes

For Othieing and the rest of WFP's Gambella team, meeting their needs often demands 12-plus-hour work days, with very little downtime. Reaching the most remote camps and border points takes hours of driving down bumpy dirt roads—which the rainy season will soon turn into muddy, cratered, slippery tracks. Othieing makes these trips almost daily to check that general food rations and High Energy Biscuits are properly distributed, so nobody goes hungry. And that the most vulnerable receive nutrient-packed food supplements, to counter alarmingly high malnutrition rates, particularly among young children.

"I feel for them," Othieing says of the refugees who arrive carrying their possessions in small suitcases or balanced on their heads. "What WFP can do is to offer them immediate support so they can get out of this bad situation. Particularly women, children and older people. If not, who will care for them?"

South Sudan has never been far from Othieing's personal horizon. Born to a family of eight in Gambella's Itang district, he learnt (along with his native Anuak) the Nuer language which many refugees here speak. So along with monitoring food distributions, he helps out as an unofficial translator.

Serving people

Serving the public has also been part of Othieing's life. His father was a health administrator; his mother worked for the local government. Today, one his brothers is an elementary school teacher. Another works for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

After getting a degree in disaster management, Othieing landed his first job with Dutch nongovernmental organisation, Zoa International.  "Like WFP, it also involved working with refugees, especially during emergencies," he said.

From Zoa, he moved on to WFP. That was two-and-a-half years ago.

Othieing, close-up"I really enjoy working for WFP," Othieing says. "For needy people, food is often the first priority. Once they have food, they can begin thinking about how to cope. How to get on with their lives."

The current refugee crisis is no exception. "People are arriving extremely hungry and malnourished," Othieing says. "The first thing they do is to ask for food - and we're the ones delivering it. That makes me happy."

Not all work

Being part of WFP Gambella is not all work. On weekends, Othieing jogs with colleagues through a spectacular countryside of rolling hills and grasslands that the rains have now turned bright green. There are hot debates over football; Othieing is an avid Arsenal fan. Gambella staff celebrates special occasions with roasted sheep or goat, Ethiopia's traditional injera flat bread and stews—washed down with plenty of beer and dancing.

And, like his WFP colleagues, Othieing is also looking ahead.

"It's important to respond to emergencies," he says, "but in the long run, it's also important to focus on long-term development in Gambella."