One Mother's Perspective On What It's Like To Be A Refugee

Jun 20, 2016
Originally published on June 27, 2016 11:19 am

It's World Refugee Day today, and the head of the UN's refugee agency, FiIippo Grandi, has released some startling statistics – starting with the fact that there are 65 million refugees, asylum seekers and displaced persons. That's a record number.

And behind every number, there is a story.

Falmata Baba Gana is one of the 65 million. She's a 30-year-old mother who fled her village in northeastern Nigeria almost a year ago after an attack by Boko Haram. She and her 7 children crossed the border into Niger and arrived at the Assaga camp, now home to some 6,000 refugees and people uprooted from their homes within Niger. Located in the Diffa region in southeast Niger, it's a makeshift refuge, buffeted by Sahara desert sands and winds, and running alongside Niger's main east-west expressway.

Baba Gana says she's still traumatized by the bloodshed she witnessed at home — and so is her young family.

"During the last holy fasting month of Ramadan, Boko Haram came to our village. Pa, pa, pa, pa," she imitates the sound of gunfire. "They rounded up the men at the mosque and killed about a dozen. And they burned down our market. Even now, the children dream about Boko Haram, and they cry in the night and remember the gunfire and dead bodies. They still tremble, I still tremble," she says.

Baba Gana says some people lost children or left them behind in the melee. And, she says, they're worried about the possibility of more extremist violence and attacks. "We feel safer this side of the border, but we know that there may be more of these frightening raids," she says.

In addition to the security problems, Niger is suffering a food shortage, and Baba Gana says that the refugees at the camp are hungry.

"Life is very difficult for us. We don't have enough food. When we were at home, we ate three times a day. Now it's very difficult," she says. "Children are in school, but they can't concentrate because sometimes they have food, sometimes they don't. We don't even have sufficient drinking water."

Still, the children sing and draw water from the well. Women in colorful clothes huddle to discuss their problems. And men head out in search of firewood for cooking.

Meanwhile, idle young men, like 25-year-old Adam Alhaji Bukar, look bored and fiddle with mobile phones.

The unrest has disrupted Niger's economy. The 80,000 Nigerians who fled here — and more than 150,000 internally displaced Nigeriens — struggle to find jobs. With many markets closed because of insecurity or destroyed by Boko Haram, there are virtually no opportunities for work for young men like Bukar, who was a farmer back home in Nigeria.

He hopes he'll soon be able to return home. Not much chance of that.

"We know the Nigerian refugees and our own displaced Nigeriens want to go home. But it's not yet safe," says Magagi Lawan, Niger's minister for humanitarian affairs and disaster management. "We, the government of Niger, are doing all we can to ensure that everything is in place to keep them safe from Boko Haram attacks here at Assaga camp and to find them food."

Listlessly Bukar tells reporters "We have fallen through the cracks living here in Assaga. There are no markets. There's no business and we simply have nothing to do."

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We're going to go now to a refugee camp in Niger. It's a desolate place in the desert home to thousands of people who have fled Boko Haram militants. Many people who live there have come from just across the border in Nigeria. They are a fraction of the 65 million people worldwide who are refugees, asylum-seekers or internally displaced. The U.N. says on this world refugee day, that is the highest number ever recorded. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton has this report.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing in foreign language).

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Close your eyes, and you wouldn't know these lively children singing are in Assaga refugee camp in Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing in foreign language).

QUIST-ARCTON: It's almost a year since Boko Haram attacked a village in Northeastern Nigeria, forcing Falmata Baba Gana and her family to flee across the nearby border into Southeast Niger's Diffa region. The 30-year-old and her seven children arrived at Assaga refugee camp and are still traumatized by the bloodshed they witnessed at home, she said.

FALMATA BABA GANA: (Through interpreter) During Ramadan fasting last year, Boko Haram came to our village, rounded up the men at the mosque and killed about a dozen and burned down our market. Even now the children dream about Boko Haram and cry. They still tremble. I still tremble.

QUIST-ARCTON: Baba Gana and 6,000 refugees from Nigeria and people displaced within Niger's Diffa border region live at Assaga camp. It's located along the country's main east-west highway, windblown by Sahara Desert sands with little protection from the blistering sun. Flimsy straw structures and plastic sheeting pass for dwellings. Baba Gana says they still feel vulnerable.

BABA GANA: (Through interpreter) We feel safer this side of the border, but we fear there may be more terrifying Boko Haram raids.

QUIST-ARCTON: Boko Haram has indeed struck in Niger, claiming to have killed more than 20 soldiers recently and uprooting about 50,000 people in this southeast border area. Some were fleeing for the second or third time. That's partly because a military coalition of Nigeria and neighboring countries has scattered Boko Haram fighters from their Northeastern Nigerian strongholds. In response, the militants have increased their cross-border raids. Niger's humanitarian affairs and disaster management administer, Magagi Lawan...

MAGAGI LAWAN: (Through interpreter) Because of the Boko Haram situation, we have reinforced security and are trying to tackle the problems regarding the lack of food.

QUIST-ARCTON: That's right. In addition to the security problems, Niger has a food shortage. The unrest has disrupted the country's economy, and now the 80,000 Nigerians who fled here to Niger and at least double that number of internally displaced people struggle to find jobs. Refugee Falmata Baba Gana says they're hungry.

BABA GANA: (Through interpreter) Back home, we ate three meals a day. Now it's very difficult. Children can't even concentrate at school because often they don't have food. And we don't have sufficient drinking water.


QUIST-ARCTON: Still, playful children sing and draw water from the well at Niger's Assaga refugee camp. Women in colorful clothes huddle to discuss their problems. Men search for firewood, and jobless young men fiddle with mobile phones, hoping they'll soon be able to return home - not much chance of that. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Diffa, Southeastern Niger Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.