There are now at least two million refugees who have fled conflict and hunger in South Sudan in search of safety in other countries.
An additional 1.9 million people have been displaced internally by violence within South Sudan’s borders. Uganda is currently hosting about half of South Sudan’s refugees, but the Republic of Sudan has also taken in just under 425,000 refugees, and Ethiopia, South Sudan’s neighbor to the east, is now hosting more than 379,000 refugees.
Nine of out every ten refugees that have fled to Ethiopia from South Sudan are women or children. Action Against Hunger has been operating in Ethiopia since 1985, preventing malnutrition and improving communities’ access to clean water, food, income, and health care services. In Gambella, an area close to the western border of South Sudan, we are working to help meet the urgent survival needs of women and children in two refugee camps. “We see very few adult men in the camps because they have stayed in their country to fight or protect their cattle,” says Raphaël Mosca, Action Against Hunger’s Field Coordinator in Ethiopia.
Families have walked for days from South Sudan to find safety in Gambella. Although they have escaped the violence they faced at home, the journey was dangerous and traumatic, and life as a refugee is extremely difficult and full of uncertainty. These families now face a future in which they are homeless, with very limited resources to rebuild their lives. With no land, no homes, no assets or income, they are at the mercy of humanitarian organizations, host governments, and host communities for their survival.
In two of Gambella’s refugee camps, Action Against Hunger’s priority is to screen and treat vulnerable mothers and children under five for severe malnutrition. At our nutrition centers, our teams weigh, measure, and screen children to determine whether they are malnourished.
Children identified as having severe acute malnutrition are assessed by our health staff with a clinical examination to confirm whether they have medical complications and whether they have an appetite. Severely malnourished children with complications are immediately admitted to our stabilization centers for intensive, inpatient medical treatment. Severely malnourished children with no medical complications are admitted to our outpatient treatment program, where their mothers receive a supply of ready-to-use therapeutic food, rich in micronutrients and protein to restore their child’s health, and the children receive weekly medical checkups to carefully monitor their recovery.
Action Against Hunger also provides psychosocial support services for mothers and children in the refugee camps in Gambella. Most of the refugees have experienced trauma and violence, which has a tangible impact on their health. Raphael explains: “We offer mothers and children safe spaces where we provide mental health and care practices. These services are integrated into our nutrition centers where children are treated for malnutrition. These are joyful places where people smile again. We are working with refugees from South Sudan who have fled violent conflicts. Mothers have suffered trauma and often have difficulty keeping the bond with their babies. Some of them can no longer breastfeed.”
Action Against Hunger sets up group or individual sessions for mothers and their children, addressing a number of issues: how to cope with anxiety and stress, how to take care of a newborn, how to start breastfeeding again, or how to gently massage a child to calm them and re-establish the mother-child bond.
We are also working to prevent malnutrition among children and mothers in the refugee camps. Our teams are distributing weekly rations of supplementary food to pregnant and nursing mothers and families with children under five. “It’s called the ‘blanket’ approach,” says Raphael. “We cover all the vulnerable pregnant women, nursing mothers and children under five—even those who have not been admitted to our nutrition programs—because they are at high risk of acute malnutrition, and the needs are enormous.”
Action Against Hunger’s programs also help prevent hunger and improve nutrition among families in the villages in Ethiopia that are hosting refugees. We are strengthening local health systems, training local health workers, supporting community health services, as well as improving nutrition and access to clean water.
* Action Against Hunger’s activities in Gambella are generously supported with funding from ECHO, SIDA, GAC, and UNHCR.