“Of course we miss our families, but we can’t return now,” the girls say.
It’s lunchtime and 15-year-old Furtuna sits next to a pot, stirring with all her strength. A sauce of tomatoes, paprika and onion simmers inside. She’s preparing food together with the eldest children, while the youngest girls have other tasks, like getting bread and cleaning.
The children live in Hitsats refugee camp with about 10,000 refugees from Eritrea. Most of the inhabitants in the camp are minors, and about one in ten have fled alone – some to escape the lifelong mandatory military service that the government imposes on young Eritreans, others to seek a life without poverty. But for many, Ethiopia is merely a transit country. A number of children wish to continue on a dangerous journey to Europe.
A children’s collective
The seven girls who live together in one of the houses had never met before they came to Hitsats refugee camp.
“Now, we’re like sisters,” Winta says. The 16-year-old has lived in the children’s collective run by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) for almost two years.
The room is no larger than 20 square metres, yet the seven girls use it as a bedroom, a kitchen and a living room. They share three beds. Next door, on the left, lives an adult who's responsible for the girls, watching out for them and helping them when they need a hand. On the right side of the house live six boys who also fled from Eritrea to Ethiopia, alone.
Escaping military services
Winta, one of the eldest girls, explains why they left their home country: “We’re all afraid to end up in the military and to lose the opportunity to get an education.”
“In the military you never finish and you have no choice. They come to get you, perhaps in the middle of the night. That’s why many of us had to leave,” she says.
All the girls crossed the border to Ethiopia on foot. “We heard that people were shot on the way,” says Winta.
“In school, they told us that many girls were raped while trying to get away,” she continues. The other girls nod their heads in affirmation.
Getting an education
In the camp, NRC provides young people and children with food and education to prepare them for the future.
“The very best is that we don’t have to be afraid anymore,” says Winta. “And we have the opportunity to go to school and learn.”
The boys next door are 12, 14 and 15 years old. Like the girls, they feel grateful to be safe from the Eritrean military.
“An education helps us grow and makes us stronger,” says 15-year-old Meyhaw. He came to the camp five months ago.
An onward journey
All the boys have relatives spread across Europe – uncles in Sweden and brothers in Germany, whose footsteps they plan to follow. But conflict across the region makes it difficult to reach Libya, where many refugees embark on a journey across the Mediterranean. Meanwhile, European countries have toughened their refugee policies.
But the girls are not as convinced about leaving Ethiopia. “I have a brother who left with a cousin, but only my brother made it over the sea,” says 15-year-old Weyni.
For now, the children want to stay in the children’s collective. While they wait for what’s next, the boys go to football practice and some of the girls have joined a drama group.
“There are days when all I want is to travel, but then I feel it’s hopeless. We know how dangerous it is,” says Weyni.
- Seven out of ten refugees living in camps in Shire, northern Ethiopia, are under 24 years old.
- Eight out of ten refugees leave the camps within a year of arrival.
- Around 8.5 million people are in need of food aid in Ethiopia. The number of food insecure people has increased by nearly three million since January 2017.
- Around 10.5 million people do not have access to clean drinking water.
- About 375,000 people suffer from acute malnutrition.
- Ethiopia houses 880,000 refugees from South Sudan, Somalia and Eritrea. In addition, 1.2 million people are internally displaced because of drought, flood and turmoil.
- In 2017, humanitarian organisations received less than 30 per cent of the money they needed to assist people in Ethiopia.