Devorah West, center, and Jessica Miranda Garcia talk to refugees about food security and the refugees' relations with neighboring villagers.

Stanford students Devorah West, center, and Jessica Miranda Garcia talk to refugees about food security and the refugees' relations with neighboring villagers. (Photo: Beth Duff-Brown)

Firewood becomes central to Stanford student research in Ethiopia

Charged with assessing how refugees and residents of the communities surrounding the camps in western Ethiopia might work together, Stanford students discover the heart of the issues both sides face.

Stanford student Devorah West talks about ideas she'll focus on when she returns to campus.

HOMOSHA, ETHIOPIA – According to Mohammed Musa, the leader of a small village in western Ethiopia, hundreds of refugees have crept into his village of 150 mud-and-bamboo huts to steal the goats and chickens . . . and cut down the trees.

The 33-year-old father of six said he feels sympathy for the thousands of Sudanese who have fled years of fighting in their homeland. But the Ethiopian tradition of opening its arms to African neighbors only extends so far. 

"Regardless of the support from our community, they are very aggressive," Musa told Stanford student Devorah West. The two spoke together while sitting on a rattan mat beneath a mango tree, as donkeys brayed and children gathered to observe the foreigner.

"They have had such a heavy impact on the environment," Musa said of the 9,400 refugees. He rubbed the deep vertical tribal scars on his cheeks: marks of strength and courage. "They keep extending the camp and taking the land from us."

And cutting down the trees: coffee, acacia, mango and eucalyptus.

West traveled to the western border of Ethiopia in the spring to talk to refugees, and also to villagers on the outskirts of the refugee camps, about how the two communities might work and learn together in vocational centers and schools between their camps and villages.

She came away dogged by one word.

"Firewood," she said. "The bane of every conversation on this trip."

West, who at the time was a master's student in international policy studies, traveled to the camps on a research trip for the Stanford Law School class Rethinking Refugee Communities.

"Our project is aimed at really transforming the perceptions of refugees and trying to highlight the benefits of a shared community," West explained. "And not addressing the conflict over firewood, I think, could be a real weakness in our project."

She learned that women favor firewood over any other fuel because it complements centuries of traditional home cooking. Men see it as a commodity they don't want to give away or, if they're refugees, can't pay for. The dispute over firewood led to the arrests of refugees outside one of the camps West visited; it has led to the rapes of thousands of women and girls across the continent as they stray from camps to look for wood.

"While the communities did by and large get along, tension was definitely created around the issue of firewood," West said. "Firewood. Firewood. Firewood. This constantly came up in conversations with refugees, the host community, the local administrations and the Ethiopian government."

So it's back to the white boards, West said, where her team would incorporate the firewood conundrum into its brainstorming about shared places.

Stanford-UN collaboration

West, another International Policy Studies student, and two computer science students spent 10 days in the Horn of Africa country this past spring as part of a collaboration between Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Their class was co-taught by law Professor Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar and Leslie Witt of the Palo Alto-based global design firm IDEO. They challenged two dozen students to explore ideas that might help the United Nations protect and support more than 42 million refugees, internally displaced persons and stateless people worldwide.

West's team was charged with going outside the camps and thinking about ways the surrounding communities could benefit from the camp infrastructure – schools, health clinics and water treatment systems, for example – while curbing the impact of thousands of foreigners suddenly setting up camp in their backyards.

The students visited the Sherkole and Bambasi refugee camps and their surrounding communities along the border with Sudan. Most of the refugees are from the isolated state of Blue Nile, where conflict broke out between the Sudanese military and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North in September 2011, several months after South Sudan seceded. Since then, nearly 300,000 Sudanese have been displaced; 22,000 are sheltered in the two Ethiopian camps.

Open arms

Ethiopia is extremely proud of its open-door policy toward people fleeing persecution and conflict. During their initial briefings in the capital, Addis Ababa, the students were told repeatedly that the country's first refugees were followers of the Prophet Mohammed in the seventh century and then, much later, black Jews from Israel and Armenian genocide victims. The country once known as Abyssinia was never colonized and Ethiopia considers itself the beneficent Big Brother of the continent.

"We have centuries-old traditions of receiving refugees; it is part of our culture," Ato Ayalew, the head of the Ethiopian government's Administration for Refugee Affairs, told the students. "We provide our land. But our sacrifice is great – because you cannot replace the environmental degradation."

Kellie Leeson, deputy program director for the Horn of Africa for the International Rescue Committee, joined the students on their trip. The IRC, which works with the United Nations in many of its camps, facilitated the student visit to the camps.

Leeson asked Musa, the Homosha village head, whether the Homoshans have benefited from the camp infrastructure, such as the IRC's water treatment plant and pumps. Under Ethiopian law, every program targeted for the refugees must have a component that benefits the host community as well, so the IRC's water distribution for the camp includes pipes to the village. The host community also has access to the new health clinic and school erected on the western edge of the camp.

Musa conceded the water is a plus and some children are attending the camp school.

Still, he said, "The impact outweighs the benefits."

Musa would like to learn superior gardening skills from refugees coming from the Great Lakes region, such as those from Congo. He hastened to add, "But they should not be given any more of our land."

Outside the other camp about 70 miles south of Sherkole, villagers from Bambasi told the students how they ran into the dirt road that runs by their thatched huts to greet the more than 12,660 refugees who streamed into the new camp last year.

"The market has brought us together and we hope to have new friendships," said Romia Abdullah Razak, a 16-year-old girl who ducked into the back of her hut to put on gold earrings before talking to the students. "They seem to be very nice people."

Nice, until the women came looking for firewood.

The local village militia, paid by the Ethiopian government, rounded up hundreds of refugee women and jailed them when they were caught chopping down trees. They were given warnings and sent back to the camp, but the incident prompted the UNHCR to speed up distribution of kerosene stoves.


West said that, beyond the distress over firewood, she is heartened to see projects benefiting both refugee and host communities. The UNHCR is constructing a hospital on the edge of Bambasi, as well as a vocational school where refugees and villagers alike can learn metal work and carpentry.

"The UNHCR is also hoping that providing skills for both the refugees and the host community will help with the economic development of the community and provide refugees with skills they can use when they return home – skills that can help them rebuild their country," she said. "The challenge, as always, is money and whether they'll have enough funding for this endeavor."

She learned that project funding is typically held hostage to annual grant renewals, which undermines critical long-term planning by the UNHCR and leads to a hodgepodge of projects that often go unfinished.

"Shared spaces should be the default for long-term UNHCR planning," she said.

West, who received her master's degree last month, is leaning toward a career in corporate social responsibility. She said she believes companies are part of the solution – through philanthropic work, yes, but also by linking the needs of the refugees with the continued penetration of their products and services.

"I think there's a really big opportunity for private companies to be thinking about innovation in these camps," she said. "They have greater funding flexibility, face less of the bureaucratic challenges that are a constant at UNHCR – and they have the ability to really think outside the box."