This piece by Kate Thomas is part of a reporting partnership between ONE and Refugees Deeply.
At PTP refugee camp near Liberia’s border with Cote d’Ivoire—some 3,500 miles from Syria—the ramifications of the Middle East refugee crisis are taking a toll. Less funding has been provided to meet refugee needs in certain non-emergency settings such as this. At PTP refugee camp, United Nations food rations were cut in July by almost two thirds. The camp’s only secondary school was forced to close its doors when funding dried up. And this came at a time when Liberia was still reeling from the Ebola outbreak.
PTP refugee camp was never designed to be a long-term camp. Established in 2011 in a forest clearing—originally the site of a timber production company—it was designed to house refugees fleeing the brutal conflict that swept through Cote d’Ivoire in 2010 and 2011. More than 3,000 Ivorians died during the conflict, and hundreds of thousands more were displaced. Five years on, Cote d’Ivoire is largely stable and the country’s former president Laurent Gbagbo is on trial for war crimes at the International Criminal Court (ICC). However, tensions remain in former political hotspots, and despite ongoing repatriations, some refugees say they are still afraid to return home.
There are now two cellphone towers emitting a clear mobile phone signal at the camp, so that refugees can easily call their loved ones back home, and more than 20 churches, as well as mosques and a Buddhist temple. The camp’s clinic is clean and well-functioning, with a decent pharmacy. Refugees have also been given freedom of movement to visit nearby communities.
More than 7,000 refugees – from the camp’s original population of 15,000 – have been repatriated by the United Nations Refugee Office (UNHCR) and the Liberia Refugee Repatriation and Resettlement Commission (LRRRC) to Cote d’Ivoire in the last few months. But others have been more wary. According to James F. Chokpelleh, the refugee camp coordinator, some of those who remain have voiced hesitation about returning home, where they might encounter old grudges or loss of personal land.
“So far we have repatriated a good number of people,” Chokpelleh says. “Some of those who are still here are waiting to harvest crops they have planted here, while others have expressed some concerns about going back.”
With food rations reduced, refugees are finding creative ways to get by. Some have become entrepreneurs, opening small businesses at the camp. A market has been built; women travel by motorbike to Zwedru, the nearest town, to buy spices and vegetables, selling them inside the camp for a small profit. NGOs have trained refugees in agricultural techniques, and patches of farmland have sprung up; farmers cultivate bananas, papaya, rice and cassava. Others burn charcoal, sell secondhand clothing, or have opened restaurants serving popular Ivorian dishes such as attiéké (cassava couscous), alloco (fried plantain) and poisson braisé (grilled fish).
However, Alexander Zakar, the camp’s superintendent, says that vulnerable people do not have the same opportunities.
“It’s understandable that funding was diverted to emergency areas, given that the situation in Cote d’Ivoire is mostly stable and these people have been here for some years,” Zakar says. “Donors no longer consider this camp to be an emergency. But it does mean that with the cuts to food rations, extremely vulnerable people are still having a hard time getting food.”
Vincent Koye Manh is a traditional musician from Diboke, Cote d’Ivoire. Using a spoon and an old bottle instead of an instrument, he sings on local radio stations in Zwedru, the nearest town, or performs with other musicians inside the refugee camp.
“I sing to forget my worries, to feel at ease,” he says. “There’s not much to do inside the camp, but singing makes me forget all of the bad things.”
Severin Minhié is a jeans salesman. At his market stall he sells secondhand jeans and t-shirts for men and women.
“When I first came to the refugee camp, things were hard,” he says.” I’d just lost my Mom and Dad; they died during the war in Cote d’Ivoire. Luckily I made it here, but I didn’t know anyone and I didn’t have any family members to rely on. Eventually I made some Liberian friends in Zwedru and Monrovia, and they started helping me buy secondhand jeans that I sell on to people at the camp. Business isn’t as good as it used to be because people don’t have much to eat these days. But I still have hope, I still have strength.”
Gaspard Niolé is a farmer who now grows fruits and vegetables for his family. In Cote d’Ivoire he owned several hectares of farmland, but here he just has a small patch of land close to his hut. He grows banana, cassava, plantain and papaya.
“Here, whoever has a bit of land can grow whatever he needs to. My brother and I were given this patch of land. First, we started growing cassava. Then, after a while, we found banana bulbs to plant. Now we grow plantain and papaya too. When you have a lot of children, you have to do whatever it takes to keep their stomachs full.”
Franck Gouetahe is a barber from Diboké, Cote d’Ivoire. When he arrived at the refugee camp in 2011, he decided to set up his own hair salon. He cuts mens’ hair, and offers a variety of styles.
“Sometimes things go well here, and sometimes they don’t,” he says. “Since they reduced the rice rations, I worry more about my family. Often I think I have enough to feed them, but then I look at what I have, and I realize it’s not going to be enough – those moments are really worrying.”
Aurel Duekonhi comes from Bloléquin district in Cote d’Ivoire. Back home she had her own restaurant, so when food rations reduced at the camp, she set up a cafe inside her hut. Alongside caring for her four young children, she serves attieke and fish to six to 40 customers per day.
“I ran a restaurant back home, so it made sense for me to do it here too,” she says. “I can’t complain too much, business is okay. I chat with my customers and we eat together. But I’m not sure if I’ll ever go home again, we’ll see.”
Michel Gnonsian Debao focuses on spiritual nourishment. Before he came to Liberia he volunteered as a Buddhist youth leader, and that’s something he’s continued to do at the refugee camp. He leads Buddhist prayer sessions and peace workshops for young refugees, and he runs a Buddhist temple.
“I’m responsible for working with Buddhist youth, for calling for peace within the camp,” he says. “I talk to them about how to live peacefully within society, about living in harmony. If there are every any disputes or problems, I organize prayer sessions, but since I arrived here there have been very few issues in the Buddhist community. I believe that world peace begins at home, whether that’s a village, a town or a refugee camp.”