In the age of social distancing, Sudanese open their homes to Ethiopian refugees

Residents of border town Hamdiyet are hosting people fleeing the Tigray conflict

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Despite the pandemic, Yasmine Amin hosts around 60 Ethiopian refugees in her home.

She already shares the house in Sudan’s border town of Hamdiyet with 14 family members.

“They had nowhere else to go, so we opened our homes to them,” the 21-year-old said.

Since November last year, Ethiopian federal government troops have been fighting the regional government of Tigray, in the east of the country.

Ethiopian forces aim to oust the Tigray People's Liberation Front after it seized federal military bases in the region.

The conflict has forced more than 60,000 Ethiopians to flee to neighbouring Sudan, says the Sudanese government.

Jannat, 43, comes from Tigray's agricultural hub of Humera. She fled with her family after their house was destroyed. They hoped to find food and shelter, but only got blankets and a bottle of water upon arrival in Hamdiyet.

“Our numbers were greater than the supplies available in the camp,” she said.

“We ended up being hosted by a Sudanese family. This is our second month living with them."

Zahraa Abu-Bakr, a 25-year-old Sudanese woman who lives with her husband and four children in Hamdiyet, decided to host Jannat and her eight family members after seeing the shortage of supplies.

Ethiopian refugees recount how they fled to Sudan

Ethiopian refugees recount how they fled to Sudan

“Although we are not leading an easy life and we suffer from soaring prices, we’ve decided we can’t leave the refugees to starve, so we opened our homes to them, sharing with them the little food we have,” Ms Abu-Bakr said.

Hamed Abu-Bakr, 28, who hosts three Ethiopian families in the house he shares with his brother and sister, is enjoying the experience.

“It is very nice to have these families live with us. We eat together and have afternoon tea together. Instead of being just three people in the house with almost the same daily routine, we are now 18 people living in the same house and it’s adding a different lively vibe to our life,” he said.

“When I come back from work in the afternoon, I find them all sitting around a tree in our house and some of our neighbours join too,” Mr Abu-Bakr adds.

Language is not an issue as his family knows a smattering of the Tigray language, in light of the regular movement between Hamdiyet and Humera. The refugees have also started to pick up some Arabic, he said.

Sudan has a long history of hosting refugees. During the Ethiopian civil war, from 1974 to 1991, Sudan hosted thousands of Ethiopian refugees in Um-Rakoba camp in the state of Qadaref.

Despite this, the country was not prepared for the latest wave.

The mayor of Hamdiyet, Taher Bartid, said authorities were surprised by the large numbers of refugees arriving.

“We had to act swiftly and open the town’s homes to them,” he says, as the refugee camp in Hamdiyet is not big enough to host these numbers.

The 300-person camp in Hamdiyet is part of the reception centre where refugees are hosted temporarily until their relocation to a proper camp.

Director of the refugee reception centre in Hamdiyet, Yaqoub Mohamed Yaqoub, said this spontaneous act of hosting the refugees in people’s houses was facilitated by familial links. Some of the town’s residents are married to Ethiopian women, given the trade and people movement between the two sides.

But not all residents received the refugees with open arms.

Hamdiyet resident Imad Omar says their presence led to food shortages and created problems.

"I would go to buy bread in the morning to find there was none left due to the higher demand after the refugees' arrival. Also, some refugees entered Hamdiyet with their own crops and started selling them at lower prices," he told The National.

Refugees waiting for aid outside the reception centre in Hamdiyet.  Credit : Hussein Saleh Ary
Refugees waiting for aid outside the reception centre in Hamdiyet.  Credit : Hussein Saleh Ary

Hamdiyet residents, who are mostly farmers, were angered by the undercutting, he said.

“In the beginning, we were annoyed but after that we started coping, for example bakeries increased their bread production,” Mr Omar added

But these are not the only challenges.

Houses crammed with refugees pose a health risk to both the residents and refugees in the age of coronavirus.

Mr Yaqoub said Hamdiyet has around 6,000 residents and has hosted at least 16,000 refugees over the last two months

“Every family in Hamdiyet hosts at least one Ethiopian family of refugees,” the town’s mayor says.

But for refugees and their hosts, the risk of contracting Covid-19 is far from their minds with more immediate problems looming.

“I am fleeing war. I don’t care about getting sick,” said 49-year-old Ethiopian farmer Zaraai Abrahi, who walked for three hours from Humera to safety in Hamdiyet with his wife and three children, aged 10, 9 and 9 months.

Mr Abrahi left Humera two months ago after losing all his crops in the ongoing conflict.

Officials say there have been no Covid-19 cases in Hamdiyet so far.

Abd-al-Hafiz Mohamed Khalil, an official in the Sudanese commission of refugees in Qadaref, says that all refugees have their temperature measured upon arrival in Hamdiyet. But there are no Covid-19 tests.

“If there are any suspected cases, they are transferred to other cities with bigger facilities,” he said.

“So far, no suspected cases appeared in Hamdiyet. We had 30 suspected cases in Um-Rakoba, of which only four were confirmed as Covid-19 cases and received treatment."

To date, Sudan has announced a total of 23,100 Covid-19 cases since the virus was first detected in the country in March 2020.

The latest Covid-19 figures available for Kassala state, where Hamdiyet is located, are from December 19, 2020. The health ministry announced a total of 301 cases in the state since the start of the pandemic and nine new cases on that day.

Mohammed Rafik Nasri, the director of the UN refugee agency's bureau in Khashm Al Girba in Kassala said the organisation is doing its best to provide aid in co-ordination with the Sudanese government.

“But the level of support available to us from donor countries is modest … We’ve been asking for more and we’ve been promised to be given more support.”

“It is the government’s duty to transfer refugees from border areas to safe locations, while our duty is to provide aid to them. Between 500 and 600 refugees are transferred daily from Hamdiyet to Um-Rakoba, where every refugee family resides separately to avoid large gatherings,” he says.

According to the Sudanese government, 45,235 refugees have entered Hamdiyet since the start of the conflict in the Tigray region, out of which 26,632 remain. The rest have been transferred to other locations.

Hundreds of refugees continue to enter Hamdiyet on a daily basis.

This article was written in collaboration with Egab.