Nothing But Nets: Dadaab Travel Blog
by Rabbi Marla Feldman
Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism
This past week I had the opportunity to travel to Kenya along with Nancy Solomon and Stephanie Garry, board members of the Union for Reform Judaism, and Adrianna Logalbo, Nothing But Nets coordinator for the United Nations Foundation. Our mission was to witness and take part in the delivery of insecticide-treated bed nets to help stem the tide of malaria that rages in refugee camps throughout Africa. To date, the Union for Reform Judaism and its affiliates have raised nearly $300,000 towards the effort to cover refugee camps in Africa. That’s 30,000 nets for 120,000 people who can sleep peacefully at night. These efforts have been made possible by a generous grant from the UN Foundation.
Flying over Dadaab, the largest refugee camp in the world with a quarter-million people, one gets a clear picture of just how stark life is in that equatorial desert of sand, red dirt and scrub. Three camps comprise this vast expanse of humanity – Ifo, Hagadera and Dagahaley – each with 70,000-100,000 refugees and each bursting with tens of thousands over capacity. Most of the refugees are from Somalia, and some from Ethiopia, Sudan and other troubled regions. Each day hundreds more find their way to the camp, adding 5,000 per week to the already overcrowded camps.
At each camp we visited several health posts, each of which services tens of thousands of people. There is one hospital in each camp, with two doctors and a few nurses. Only one camp has surgical facilities. Bed net deliveries take place at these health posts, and serve as a draw to bring in refugees who might otherwise not seek medical attention. Once there, they receive health education and medical consults in addition to receiving their bed nets. Hospitals are comprised of a few separate shelters for maternity care, pediatrics, and those with contagious illnesses. Bed nets are widely used in the hospital facilities, and those receiving treatment are given nets to take home with them. Circumstances are grim, with a cholera outbreak just beginning and a shortage of water. Each person should receive 20 liters of water per day, but some of the camps are down to 10-13 liters/day, making health and hygiene even more precarious.
In each camp there are targeted efforts to provide nets to the most vulnerable populations – those with children under five, pregnant women and seniors. Teams of health workers and volunteers from the “blocks” go home to home to deliver nets. (“Homes” at the camps are generally tukuls, round tent-like structures made of twigs, or small mud and twig huts. The more substantial structures are made of mud brick with tin sheets as a roof. Most have mattresses on the ground for sleeping and little else inside.) There the net teams gather the neighbors around, explain the importance of using the nets and actually set up the net for the residents. This way they are sure the nets are used properly while they educate others and create excitement around the use of nets.
What we witnessed in Dadaab was abject destitution; people living in horrendous circumstances at the barest of subsistence levels, dependent on others for every morsel of food, every drop of water and whatever meager shelter they could cobble together. But we also saw heroic efforts by UNHCR staff members who set their own lives aside to care for the world’s forgotten refugees. We met orphans raising other orphans and youth who have no reason for hope yet seek an education nonetheless. We watched doctors with few resources care for tens of thousands and voting, democratic communities rise from the dust of the earth. And we saw children with absolutely nothing to call their own – no toys, no balls, no books, no games - find joy in the simple possession of a bed net.