Asylum through the eyes of Fatuma, aged two

Two-and-a-half-year-old Fatuma lives with parents, two brothers, grandmother and auntie in a bare one-bedroom apartment in Djibouti city. They left Yemen in March to escape the war, landing in Obock and later moving to Djibouti city so that Fatuma’s brother Abdulaziz, who is gravely ill, could be closer to hospital.

Fatuma is bewildered. Why did they leave their home in Yemen and go to Obock? Life in a tent, with high temperatures and no running water is hostile for anyone, let alone a two-and-a-half-year-old child.

Soon after Fatuma and her extended family arrived in Obock in March, the family was split. Abdulaziz was taken to hospital in Djibouti right away, and stayed there for two months with his father and auntie. In May Fatuma, her mother, younger brother and grandmother moved to Djibouti city to join her father, aunt and Abdulaziz. However other members of their extended family remained in Obock.
This was all very confusing to Fatuma.

In Yemen the child lived with her extended family - parents, grandparents, uncles, cousins. She could go out, and could play. Here in Djibouti city her family rarely goes out of their tiny bare apartment. She can’t play with her big brother, Abdulaziz, five, owing to his illness. He has gradually lost his speech, his mobility is reduced to crawling and he needs 24-hour care. He used to talk, but now can only express himself by crying and screaming.

The children’s mother Maria, 20, who is Abdulaziz’s constant caregiver does the best she can to look after Fatuma and her younger brother, Couday, aged one. Maria is careful to conceal her worries from the children. For instance the fact that, on the day of UNHCR’s visit the family had been ordered to vacate the tiny apartment that they were living in rent free, courtesy of Lootah Association, a local non-governmental organization that assists Yemenis. Or that their father, who was forced to drop out of university in his second year when war broke out, cannot find a job and fend for them; and that he also ill, afflicted with diabetes.

But children have a way perceiving things. Fatuma and her little brother appear to be adversely affected by the very tense and anxious environment in which they live. They know something is not right. Too young to understand why they have been uprooted from normal routines and brought to this small apartment, where they don’t even have enough food, and where their mother seems to devote all her time to Abdulaziz, Fatuma and her little brother are prone to temper tantrums.

Asked how she copes with Abdulaziz’s illness and taking care of two other small children in her difficult circumstances, Maria says, “Sometimes I look out the window and just watch the world go by. On a rare occasion my husband and I go around the block, leaving the children with their auntie. That is the only time we can have a few private moments together. But it is rare, and even then I can only leave the children for a short time because only I can handle them”.

UNHCR protects Fatuma and her family and keeps an eye on them to ensure that their needs are met. It is through UNHCR’s intervention that the family was able to move from Obock to Djibouti city, where Abdulaziz has easier access to medical treatment. Until 30 September 2015, when the Djibouti authorized the registration of Yemeni refugees in Djibouti city, all refugees arriving from Yemen had to register and remain in Obock.

UNHCR works with different partners to help meet the family’s needs. The non-governmental organization, African Humanitarian Action, provides the means for Abdulaziz to go to hospital regularly, covers his medical bills and buys his medicines. For its part the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) grants the family 23,000.00 Djiboutian francs (roughly USD 130) per month to help meet their living expenses. Given that the family is going through particularly difficult times, LWF also visits regularly to offer psychosocial help. Saada Samireh Warsama of LWF explains, “This is a very vulnerable case because it involves a sick child whose condition affects other family members, especially his younger siblings. The family does not have any means and really needs help. While LWF cannot afford to meet all the family’s needs, in terms of housing and medical treatment, or a special diet for Abdulaziz, every time that we are in a position to offer more assistance to vulnerable refugees, we give priority to Fatuma’s family.”

LWF will soon begin delivering material assistance, including mosquito nets and blankets, as well as dry food rations to the family. At the same time it is seeking local associations that can provide the family with dry food to supplement the aid it receives. Already the Lootah Association has allowed the family to continue living rent-free in their apartment as they had nowhere else to go.

As for little Fatuma, she appears to be growing up fast in order to understand the tough environment around her and to cope with it.