We are in the refugee camp of Touloum in eastern Chad and the sun is bright. The camp is surrounded by desert for miles in every direction. It is quiet in the camp as we walk through, except for a small group of children who are playing outside and the occasional sound of a donkey trudging through the sand.
We are invited in to speak with three Sudanese refugee women and are immediately offered a colorful mat of purple and pink to sit on, one that we are later told they had to save a long time to get. Wind blows the sand in all of our eyes as we speak and they offer us water in a small metal tin. The tattered tarp overhead barely protects them from the heat as we ask about their lives. We hear about how they are surviving, what kind of food is available, what they fear, and how assistance cuts are impacting them.
As we continued to speak, I kept being drawn back to Nazaneen, the eldest of the three. She was diligently weaving a small mat together and occasionally nodding as the others talked about the impact of food assistance cuts and the difficulty in finding any work at all.
Nazaneen said she couldn’t leave the camp to find work and had little resources to keep her going. In other words, it is a daily struggle for her. She described the kinds of non-food assistance that used to be provided for the refugees, such as plastic sheeting, nets, and mats to sleep on, but those kinds of supplies stopped a very long time ago. So she makes small mats by hand to try and earn something, anything really. The fear on her face about her own future was evident.
Even if Nazaneen could leave the camp to find work, job opportunities are very limited around the Touloum refugee camp. This part of eastern Chad has limited arable land for agricultural work. Those refugees who are able to farm on land in neighboring areas are forced to share a significant percentage of their earnings. And security concerns for these women are very real. We must not forget that it is women who often must leave the camp for days at a time in search for work in dangerous environments. They are putting their own safety at risk in the hopes of getting a few days of work through limited agricultural opportunities or by making bricks.
In any assistance strategy, the most vulnerable must be taken into account. The ongoing conversation the international humanitarian community is having now is about shifting the strategy to self-sustainability for this refugee population, most of whom have been here for over a decade. But all of this is occurring at a time when drastic cuts to food rations have taken place over the past year in Chad, by 50% in many areas, leaving some refugees with around only 800 calories a day to live on. And available water provided is 7-8 liters a day per person, well below international standards of 15 liters.
So thinking practically for a woman such as Nazaneen and the older population who are so vulnerable, it is hard to understand how her unique needs will be met. What happens for Nazaneen now? Leaving the camp to find what little work is available is not an option for her. Will new assistance ideas take into account those such as Nazaneen who are not physically strong enough to leave to look for work? We hope Nazaneen’s story is remembered. She needs more help today.
**Names changed to protect identity.