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Crisis in Chad: Sudanese Refugees Flee

Original reporting by Liz Shaffer-Wishner for "The Massachusetts Daily Collegian"

Adapted with permission for ChildFund

It’s an area often overlooked, a crisis too easily forgotten.

And while the headlines give constant reminders of hunger and storms in other parts of the world, Mai Ensmann is reminded daily of the strife of the Sudan war faced by the refugees fleeing from Sudan into Chad. The rebel uprisings against the national government in Sudan forced Sudanese refugees — mostly women and children — across the border into Chad.

Ensmann has spent the last 10 months as the gender based violence coordinator in Chad for Christian Children's Fund (CCF). Working at a refugee camp just outside Iriba and 60 km from Sudan's border, she aids with issues related to refugees and refugee resettlement including the provision of education and protective services as well as maintaining a steady flow of food, water and volunteers to refugees. Ensmann is also working to implement a program in the refugee camp aimed at dealing with gender-based violence.

"(Gender-based violence) as a field for humanitarian work has been around for only a little over 10 years, but you’ll find in any conflict situation the levels of sexual violence are enormous," Ensmann said. "We know women and children are being abused during conflict. Rape is used as a weapon of war."

"A lot of families were separated and a lot of women will tell you that their husbands have been killed so they arrived in camp with just their children or just by themselves."

After receiving degrees from the University of Massachusetts and Harvard, Ensmann spent two years serving in the Peace Corps in Kyrgyzstan. She transitioned into work that would help her stop violence against women. She then began volunteering with the Rape Crisis Center in Madison, Wisc., while working as a student advisor at the University of Wisconsin. Finally, she became a trainer with the Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault (WCASA) before joining CCF.

It was that position with WCASA in which Ensmann received her true training for her position in Chad, but it doesn’t make her immune to the violence women and children are facing in Chad. It doesn't lessen the impact of what she sees firsthand each and every day.

"I’m accustomed to hearing horrible stories of people’s pain and violence-based experiences," she said.

Although the refugee situation is seemingly settling down as fewer Sudanese refugees are making the flight to Chad, more than 220,000 refugees remain in Sudan.

The media coverage continues to fade, though.

"It’s hard to keep the media attention when you have an on-going problem," she said. "The (refugees) haven’t gone home. You just don’t see it in the newspaper anymore."

Violence Against Women and Girls

Working with gender based violence (GBV) survivors in Sierra Leone and Northern Uganda, CCF found that emotional scars run deep, causing women and girls undue feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness and despair.

Girls are often cut off from their families who consider them to be unclean or damaged. Unable to find employment, marry or raise their children, many girls resort to prostitution in order to provide for themselves. GBV survivors are put at risk for contracting HIV as well as other STIs (Sexually Transmitted Infections), reproductive tract trauma, unwanted pregnancy, complications associated with unsafe abortions, somatic complaints, depression and suicide.

CCF work in Chad aims to prevent sexual abuse/exploitation against women and mitigate the psychosocial, medical and physical effects of gender based violence through the promotion of community participation, awareness and creation, provision of psychosocial counseling, improved medical attention, increased protection and clear legal services throughout the duration of the program.

While the work is exhausting and the days often endless, Ensmann returns each morning prepared to aid the refugees in need. "By the end of my days I’m completely exhausted," Ensmann said. "I just can’t turn it off at the end of the day. It’s a huge challenge to do this work, but it’s very fulfilling."