Chad becomes a haven for refugees in central Africa

Kids rest at a refugee camp in Chad.
Kids rest at a refugee camp in Chad.

Visiting refugee camps is never easy. No one wants to leave their home, their life, and everything they’ve ever known and run to another country where they have no status, few rights, and are forced to live in a tent. But refugees aren’t given a choice.

Over the past few weeks I visited three refugee camps in Chad, where families who have fled the terror of Boko Haram in Nigeria are taking shelter. As I journeyed from the southeast of Chad to the west, I heard very similar stories, over a thousand miles apart. Gunfire in the middle of the night. Running through the darkness, grabbing children—any children—on the way. Heading away from the guns, not knowing what lay ahead. Then the long walk… Days, weeks, months of traveling to a place where you hope the gunmen won’t find you, won’t steal your children, won’t kill you for not being radical enough. Stories of loss, missing spouses, missing children.

But I also heard stories of hope. Of families reunited. Of camps where strangers look out for each other like family. Of relatives sheltering cousins they’ve never met, sharing their meager corn harvest and a few fish.

Aisha and her family fled Boko Haram attacks in their home town. They are waiting to be reunited with their two boys.
Aisha and her family fled Boko Haram attacks in their home town. They are waiting to be reunited with their two boys.

I met Aisha and her husband Ali, who are staying with her uncle. When she fled Nigeria at 4 a.m. during a Boko Haram attack, she was only able to find her two little girls, leaving behind her two sons, 10 and 7, who were staying with friends. She spent weeks without sleep, worrying about them, regretting that she left them, wondering what if…

Aisha eventually heard from her mother-in-law the boys were safe, but they are still in Nigeria, and she has no way to be reunited with them. “I can’t go back there, it’s not safe. I hope we can bring my sons to Chad, but I don’t know how. We have no money, we are living on the charity of my relatives.”

Another man, the patriarch of his family, brought 28 of his relatives to Chad in his car. He sold the car to rent a small one-room house, with everything they own inside. His life work and savings are gone, but he has his grandchildren. One of his grandsons got married right before Boko Haram attacked.

Talking with families at a refugee camp, hearing their stories.
Talking with families at a refugee camp, hearing their stories.

“They stole your honeymoon, too!” we joked.

“Yes, but we kept our lives,” he smiled. He asked that we not publish any photos of the family, as there are other family members still in Nigeria that could be in danger.

I also talked to Aya, a shy but precocious teenager. She was one of 18 children that all escaped with her parents, before militants attacked their town. When we asked her what she missed most, it was school. In Nigeria, she studied in a Muslim school. Boko Haram says they want to ban western education, especially for girls. But for Aya, they have shut her out of even religious education. In Chad, the local school is in French, which she can’t speak. She wants to go back to Nigeria as soon as possible, but when that will happen is unknown.

For now, Aya, and so many others like her in Chad need help to access food, jobs, schools, and to contribute with dignity in the homes that have welcomed them, and to get ready for whatever their future may hold.

Chad Refugee Crisis

Chad now has refugees from four countries sheltering within its borders. Every bordering country to Chad has experienced internal violence against its citizens in the last five years: Libya, Cameroon, Nigeria, Central African Republic, and Niger. World Concern started working in Chad with refugees from Sudan in 2008, and people have been seeking refuge here ever since.

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Chris Sheach is World Concern's Deputy Director of Disaster Response.