the translator: daoud hari’s memoir on darfur and the plight of refugees.

I just finished reading The Translator: A tribesman’s memoir of Darfur by Daoud Hari.  Hari recounts his time traveling and working with journalists throughout Sudan and Chad as a translator.  Given the situation in Sudan and his line of work, part of the book takes place in refugee camps.

I have long been interested in the plight of refugees.   Refugee camps are necessary.  But some of these temporary camps end up being not so temporary.  One of the largest refugee camps, Dadaab in Kenya, turned 20 last year.  Some people have spent their whole loves living in a refugee camp.  And there is no indication that they will be moving any time soon.

Describing the camps on the Chad/Sudan border, Hari states: 

Canvas and plastic make very hot shelters in a desert, and these were what the world had sent-exactly the wrong thing and not nearly enough of it… With all the bright people in the world and so much wealth, could there not be humane shelters for such times if we are a family?  Let a peace prize be reserved for those who can someday do this moral favor for humanity. (74)

This is something I have thought about for a long time.  Makeshift homes in refugee camps around the world are made up of canvas and plastic tents.

.source: UNHCR.

.source: UNHCR.

And those tents are better than in some other areas of the world.


Providing emergency shelter for millions of people is no doubt a difficult task.  But, I have a feeling there has not been a whole lot of innovation regarding these housing structures in decades.  And I think there are still steps that can be made.

Take crowdsourcing.  The UNHCR recently granted engineers at Southern Methodist University a $250,000 grant to help UNHCR provide safer drinking water in current and future camps.  The same could be done for an architectural school.  Ask architecture students to come up with a very low cost durable structure that can help create a home worthy of living in for an indefinite amount of time.

For another possible solution, I look to fellow social entrepreneurs.  Social enterprises are working on solving some of the biggest international development issues facing the world today.  I know there has to be a model that can work for this as well.

And while you’re all at it, try and come up with a safe, durable, and affordable structure for Americans too.  Mobile homes just can’t stack up against tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, etc.  As a result, the poor get hit the hardest by a natural disaster.  But I digress…

Another thing that Hari brought up, is something that I have discussed a little bit on the blog.  Again referring to conditions in the refugee camps, Hari states:

It might be possible for the wealthy nations or the U.N. to send fuel with the food, or to help the refugees build efficient stoves, but this was not being done. (90)

There’s a general theme here.  And you see this happen frequently in international development.  People want to help.  It’s one of the best attributes of mankind.  But, people have a tendency to assume what people need instead of asking them.  It really doesn’t take much effort to ask what people need.  And to respond accordingly.  It could save the world a lot of time and resources and help a lot more people in the process.

Finally, there was another way that Hari mentioned helping refugees.

It helps many people just to have someone listen and write their story down; if their suffering is noted somewhere, by someone, anyone, then they can more easily let loose of it because they know where it is. (80)

This is so spot on.  It helps to let go when you can mentally put your story someplace else.  It doesn’t have to live and circulate constantly in your head.   Those memories safely reside somewhere else.  And to this end, the opportunity to tell your story is essential.  Another opportunity for social enterprise perhaps?

There is no easy solution to the massive amount of refugees and internally displaced persons the are being  or have been forced from their homes.  But, I think we can continue to innovate to make life in a refugee camp a little more dignified.

In the meantime, I highly recommend you read The Translator.


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