Perspectives: Walls

A speculative piece on the day-to-day reality of life in refugee camps — based on first-hand experience

Sleep is difficult to come by. There’s the heat and humidity to deal with; ventilation in the UNHCR-provided tent homes leaves a lot to be desired, and it is stifling inside. The lack of any sort of mattress means contending with a rock hard ground as a bed. Chiggers seem to feast on you when you’re especially prone, and the itchiness is particularly maddening. The overcrowding makes for noisy nights too, but worse than that is the proximity to neighbors whose allegiance is to a tribe that is a blood enemy to your own, and death threats come often.

Beyond that, there is the anxiety. Always the anxiety. What will happen to us? How long will we be here? How will we get enough to eat? What is happening in the world outside this camp?

You eventually abandon sleep and rise with the sun, ever optimistic that the queue for the water pump will be short at this hour, and always disappointed when it seems to have grown again from the previous day. Where have all these people come from?

Breakfast is the previous night’s leftovers from dinner. Your stomach grumbles, a victim to the heinous math that finds feeling full sacrificed to extend one meal’s ration to two or three. There’s never enough food; you make it last until it’s all out, and hope the number of days until the next distribution day aren’t too many.

The wait at the pump becomes a social affair. Lacking access to the outside world, affairs of the camp dwellers become all-consuming. This one’s house is unkempt, this other’s husband is a drunk, an attack left another battered and scared, and on and on. Conversations are punctuated by a restless sense of dread: can this stasis be maintained, or will worse come soon?

You haul the few gallons that are your day’s water supply home in jerry cans or any other receptacle you can procure. The walk takes twice as long home as it does to the pump owing to the weight of the water. The hauling leads to sore shoulders and neck. There’s never enough water, but you do your best to make it work.

Children awake, you sacrifice your bit of breakfast to allow more nutrients for them. They bundle off to school - still young enough to have hope and know joy. Their songs both lift your spirits and crush your heart: will they know peace, happiness, and anything other than a life in these camps? You’ve been living here for twenty years. Twenty! Will they too see decades in limbo, being neither a person here nor there?

Children away, you have time to clean your tent home. What would be reasonable for 4 people to share on a camping weekend is home to your mish-mash family of nine. There’s your own children and grandchildren, niece and nephew, and the two orphans you’ve been asked to play benefactor to. Your spouse is gone. Perhaps back home, perhaps dead. It’s been years since you last heard from them.

Following the morning cleaning, you head out to the forest bordering the camp. It’s illegal to go there, but being forbidden to harvest wood within the camp makes it a necessity. There’s no other way to prepare the home fires, after all. You prefer to send one of your kids out to do this as the police tend to be more lenient with them, at times it’s unavoidable. You’ve heard stories of abuse and rape from others, but have been fortunate enough to avoid such yourself. That’s not to say life within the camp is any safer. Your foster child is a rape victim, and that one of only 9 years of age. She’s not spoken since the attack.

Home from the wood gathering, a quick nap helps recover some energy lost from the lack of food, and helps kill a few hours. There’s never enough of anything but time. And engorging yourself on that is a feast that will only lead to madness. Busy, busy, busy; keep yourself going or collapse from the weight of being alive in this place.

The roads are really just dirt paths. The rainy season makes moving from point A to B nearly impossible as your flip flops get lost in the knee-deep mud and muck. The daily deposits of the camps 100,000 residents into the temporary toilets-cum-holes in the ground mix with the mud, and cholera spreads like wildfire. When moving about is unavoidable, it’s taxing to the point of exhaustion.

Faith becomes a potent salve. The week’s suffering culminates in a day of song and optimism at the local house of worship. You allow yourself to dream of the next world, to hope that your sad existence in this plane will lead to a reward in the next life. A full belly, clean clothes, a warm bed, and a roof that doesn’t leak over your head become your vision of nirvana. It’s a need that becomes tangible, and one that tears at you if you allow it to.

Your life becomes a cycle. One turn becomes unrecognizable from the other save the fact that each ages you a little bit more, a little bit harsher. You swing between a jaded cynicism and an buoyant optimism, never quite sure which one is the actual you and which is the by-product of an impossible reality. You hope it’s the latter.

There are moments of release. The fresh fish your neighbor caught and shared with you. The impromptu song and dance performance by the schoolkids. Getting news from the outside world. This simple pleasures become defining moments in an existence you never dreamed of, but make do within.

Photo Credit: Sara Legg

Support comes infrequently and at times in mysterious ways. A kind word or gesture from a stranger. An extra ration of food. Medicine when your child falls ill. These are the things that get you through a day. And a day becomes a week, a month, a year, a lifetime. You hope you can maintain a sense of yourself. You hope to see what else this world has in store for you. If only you could live outside these walls.

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To read about the work that Quicksand has done in the humanitarian sector, please check out the following:

A Conversation on Innovation in the Humanitarian Sector” by Ayush Chauhan

Design Innovation for Refugee Contexts” by Sara Legg

Human-Centered Design in Malnutrition” by Amey Bansod

From Crisis, Hope: A Design Story” by Kevin Shane

Enabling low-literacy community health workers to treat uncomplicated SAM as part of community case management: innovation and field tests” by Casie Tesfai, Bethany Marron, Anna Kim, and Irene Makura