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Born an IDP: how young mothers are coping in Ethiopian settlements

Young moms congregate in a displacement camp in Ayder, Ethiopia. Photo: Sophie Gebreyes, LWF

April 17, 2021

By Janice Biehn

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In January 2021, PWRDF responded to an ACT Alliance appeal for Ethiopia’s Tigray region with $35,000 to support the work of Lutheran World Federation (LWF) Ethiopia. (On November 4, 2020, a long-standing political disagreement between the Ethiopian federal government and the northern state of Tigray’s regional government led to an outbreak of violence. Military action forced people to flee their homes.)

Since the appeal began in January, the situation has descended into chaos and further violence. The level of civilian casualties is extremely high, and 2.2 million people have been displaced to Tigray. Starvation looms for 4.5 million people in need of humanitarian assistance, yet only 77,000 people (less than 2%) have received any type of aid. People in Hitsas and Shimelba are in need of protection and access to food and other basic services. There has not been any food distribution from the government, the UN or any NGOs.

Sophie Gebreyes, Country Representative for LWF Ethiopia, files this report:

I visited the city of Mekelle in early February. There were eight makeshift Internally Displaced People (IDP) settlements in schools and colleges. When I returned one month later, there were 11, with IDPs arriving every day. Ayder, the ninth camp to open, is already overflowing. There are close to 900 IDPs in the camp, with more than 50% being women and children under five.

I was struck by the number of displaced young mothers, carrying their babies and toddlers on their backs. Neguesti Hagos Wolde Mariam, 32, arrived at Ayder from Sheglil near Humera in Western Tigray a month ago with her husband Halefom Wolde Gebriel, 34, and their four children, Helen, 15, Zebib, 8, Mekdes, 4, and baby Tse’are, just two months old.

Neguesti and her family had lived in Sheglil all their lives, and were determined to stay there. Then a month after the troubles began they were told that they had to leave the region and go back to Tigray, as Humera and surrounding area ‘reverted’ to Amhara Regional State. Most people went to Shire, across the Tekezze River, but Neguesti and her family preferred to travel as far away as possible to Mekelle, some 512 km away. At the time, Neguesti was eight months pregnant. When they reached Terkani, a town not far from Humera, she began to feel the pangs of labour and soon gave birth to Tse’are, prematurely. Neguesti believes that it is a miracle that Tse’are, born under horrendous conditions, survived the ordeal of travel and made it to Mekelle at all.

LWF Ethiopia has been providing emergency distribution of food and cash to displaced families and vulnerable host communities. They have also been advocating for the government to resume delivery of subsidized commodities, prioritizing nutrition of pregnant and lactating women. Neguesti has been receiving direct cash assistance, as well as nutritional supplement as a lactating mom through the ACT appeal.

Neguesti and Halefom used to be farmers. They worked two hectares of land growing sorghum and sesame. In a good year, they could harvest 40 to 50 quintals of sorghum and 10 to 11 quintals of sesame seeds, earning an average annual income of ETB 150,000, ($4,545 Cdn), a decent income in these parts. The night they decided to leave, their house and their crops were burnt to the ground. They fled only with the clothes on their backs.

Cradling Tse’are in her arms, her sombre face still bearing the markings of the tragedy she lived through, Neguesti tries to breastfeed. But because she does not have enough to eat, she is not producing sufficient amounts of milk to nurse her baby. She worries what impact this will have on Tse’are’s development. One month after arriving in Ayder, food had not been distributed by the Government, the UN or NGOs. They must live off the generosity of the people of Mekelle and the local churches who continue to carry the brunt of the emergency response.

How you can help

You can support the ACT Alliance appeal in Ethiopia by donating to PWRDF. Visit and choose Emergency Response, then indicate Ethiopia in the notes section. Youc can also call Donor Relations Officer Mike Ziemerink at 416-822-9083, leave a voicemail toll free at 1-866-308-7973 or send a cheque with a memo “Ethiopia” to 80 Hayden St. Toronto, Ontario, M4Y 3G2.

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For media requests please contact Communications Coordinator Janice Biehn at (416) 924-9199;366.

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