From campus to camps: Stanford students study realities on the ground for thousands of refugees in Ethiopia

In a trip facilitated by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Rescue Committee, a group of Stanford students visited a camp in Ethiopia where thousands of refugees live. The students came away with a better understanding of the complex issues facing the refugees, plus new ideas for solutions.

A group of Stanford students conduct research in refugee camps along the western border of Ethiopia for a joint project by CISAC and the UNHCR to rethink ways to improve camp communications, registration, food security and host-community relations.

SHERKOLE, ETHIOPIA – The white Jeep bumped along past red-clay villages dotted with thatched huts and waving children who had gathered in the shadows of the mango trees. The Stanford students were quiet as they observed the foreign landscape, gripping their laminated design maps and the exhaustive lists of questions they had prepared.

The head of the U.N. refugee program in Ethiopia had just cautioned them: Changing the way we do things won't be easy.

"First go see the realities on the ground," had been the advice from J.O. Moses Okello, the chief representative in Ethiopia for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the global agency set up in 1951 to help those uprooted after World War II.  "You do not have to reinvent the wheel. And yet, with all the new technology today, I suppose the sky is your limit. Come back to us with some good ideas."

The students would soon learn that good ideas from the classroom don't always translate into easy, doable ideas on the ground. And yet, they would also come away with nuggets of innovation and new ideas to take back to their whiteboards on campus.

"I can't believe we're finally here," said Devorah West, at the time a second-year master's student in international policy studies, as she took in the parched Ethiopian plains. "It's a long way from the classroom; I just don't know what to expect."

This long-awaited research trip emerged from a dialogue and collaboration between Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) and the UNHCR. A U.N. official had approached Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, who at the time was co-director at CISAC, about exploring ideas to support more than 42 million refugees, internally displaced persons and stateless people worldwide. (Cuéllar is now director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and a faculty member at CISAC.)

One result was the trip by four students from Cuéllar's Law School class, Rethinking Refugee Communities, in spring 2013 to test technology and design theories drawn up in the class co-taught by Leslie Witt of the Silicon Valley global design firm, IDEO. Twenty-five students spent the early part of the academic year consulting and brainstorming about ways to advance camp communications; food security and economic self-sufficiency; host community relations; and the complicated process of setting up camps for thousands of exhausted and heartsick refugees once they arrive.

First camp

Parth Bhakta and Ben Rudolph, who are now graduates in symbolic systems and computer science, respectively, looked at camp communications and early camp registration. Jessica Miranda Garcia , who earned her master's degree in international policy studies in June, intended to take back to her team details about small-scale farming and ways they might help refugees become more self-sufficient. West's team was charged with helping local communities share some of the benefits from the camps while avoiding the pitfalls.

After two days of travel from San Francisco to Ethiopia and then two days of briefings in the capital, the students took an Ethiopian Airlines prop plane from Addis Ababa to the western town of Assosa.

Finally, they arrived in Sherkole, a village 30 miles from the Sudanese border. The students got their first dose of African celebration – and a hard dose of reality.

They arrived on International Women's Day, so the United Nations, International Rescue Committee (IRC) and numerous Ethiopian government agencies and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) were celebrating in the camp's main square. It was a joyous and hopeful scene in the 90-plus-degree heat, with loud drums and horns competing with dancers and speeches about the need to recognize the accomplishments of women.

But when the students gathered in a nearby community center with two dozen refugees, they got an earful about the lack of communications, lost ration cards, displaced children and rivalries in the camp filled mostly with Sudanese fleeing fighting in the Blue Nile state in southeastern Sudan. Conflict in that region re-erupted in 2011 between the Sudanese army and rebels allied to the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, the dominant force in newly independent South Sudan.

"I have food. I have a wife. I have everything I need – but I have no freedom," said Faruk Baba, a 34-year-old Sudanese living in the UNHCR camp for 13 years. He met and married his wife and had four children in the camp that opened in 1997 and today houses about 7,600 refugees. Can the students help him with his documents to go home?

Seated in a circle on small stools in the clay-walled center painted lemon yellow, and beastly hot with its corrugated roof, Rudolph and Bhakta gently told the refugees they were not there to help them with immediate woes; they were college students conducting research.

They turned back to questions about how the refugees communicate back home and whether the registration process was smooth when they arrived. But the refugees wanted to vent.

An old man with owl-eyed glasses said he had been waiting nine months for his ration card. A woman with deep half-moon tribal scars on her cheeks clucked at the students and ignored their questions: "As refugees, we have no rights. We just do what they tell us to do."

Rudolph and Bhakta plowed ahead. Bhakta talked about his scheme to set up radio transmitters on mobile broadcast kiosks that would allow refugees to communicate with the UNHCR. Rudolph explained his software designed to promote two-way communication between the UNHCR and refugees using mobile phone technology. But Ethiopia has a monopoly on the cellular network, so the government might not be open to the new technology. Further, the refugees told him, many of them have no access to mobile phones.

A young Congolese man then voiced the frustrations of refugees. "We're always receiving guests here and giving them information, but you never give us any solutions," said Steven Murama, who said he fled eastern Congo three years ago, walking through Rwanda and Kenya and then on to Ethiopia after his village was attacked by one of the many rebel groups terrorizing Congo's South Kivu province. "We are not kids to be toyed with out here."

The students, somewhat dazed by jet lag and heat, replied that they had come with good intentions and hoped to work on long-term solutions that may one day help the next generation of refugees.

"It was really tough speaking with the refugees initially," Bhakta said. "You begin to realize that there are no easy solutions, despite all the work we did in the classroom."

Yet many one-on-one meetings with refugees and Ethiopians in surrounding communities over the next two days proved extremely fruitful and the students were eager to report back to their teams. Some of their findings:

"You read about refugees and their living situation in textbooks and articles, but actually visiting a camp makes it come to life; it puts things in perspective," Rudolph said. "If it was easy to apply technology to the refugee situation, then there'd be no challenge. What's the fun in that?"

The UNHCR project has led to a multidisciplinary partnership involving CISAC and students from across the Stanford campus, as well as NGOs, including Asylum Access and the International Rescue Committee, which facilitated the student trip to Ethiopia.

Kellie Leeson, the deputy program director for the Horn of Africa for the IRC, joined the students in Ethiopia.

"The students came with open minds and without all the barriers that we in the humanitarian community often face," Leeson said. The IRC works with the United Nations in many of its camps, particularly in the area of water distribution and sanitation.

"I think they saw that there are challenges, but I hope that this will only push the students to keep exploring new ideas that we in the humanitarian community can also take on," Leeson said.

Professors, physicians, architects and other professionals have been eager to volunteer time and expertise to the project. Jeff Geisinger, an architect with Ennead Architects – the New York-based firm that designed the Bing Concert Hall and the new wing of the Stanford Law School – just returned from a similar trip to Rwanda with Aparna Surendra, a graduate student in management science and engineering, and CISAC's Liz Gardner.

Geisinger's travel blog about the trip and the field research into refugee settlements can be seen here: