When the war broke out in South Sudan, Nyalat and Nyahok were among millions of people forced to flee their homes. They walked hand-in-hand with their children and crossed into Ethiopia to seek refuge in Gambella region. Despite finding physical safety, the two women plunged into a deep depression, triggered by the deaths of their husbands. The two have lived parallel lives for years, but they did not know it, until a few months ago, when they sat in a circle together and shared their stories.
“Can I begin?” Nyalat asks, sitting on a mat cradling her baby. Taking a deep breath, she continues: “We lived in a quiet area until the war started and everything changed forever.”
Nyalat fled on foot with her five children and, on the way, armed men stole all their belongings. “They took away the goats and all we had,” she says. “We slept on the mud, with nothing to cover the children with; we did not have clothes, shoes, water, or food.”
After six days in the forest, Nyalat heard the terrible news. “My husband was tied to a tree, along with many others,” she says. “He was cut with machetes and shot dead.”
“I spent my days crying.”
Nyalat gave up on looking for food or collecting wood. When she and her children finally reached Nguenyyiel Refugee Camp, their situation improved as they were able to access to most basic goods, but nightmares haunted her. “Even if I tried to forget bad thoughts and be positive, ghosts would come back in the night.”
Nyahok’s journey began in Kaldak, South Sudan, where her husband and uncle were killed. “We all ran in different directions,” she says. “We thought we would die, too, so the children and I fled and hid in the woods.”
It was the rainy season, and Nyahok was displaced several times seeking refuge until she reached the Ethiopian border in March 2017. Throughout their journey, Nyahok’s sole motivation was saving her children’s lives. When she reached the refugee camp – when she finally felt safe enough to stop moving – she was overtaken by trauma.
“I could not sleep, I just cried for the death of my parents, my husband and my uncle,” she says.
What saved these women was the realization that they were not alone.
More than 400,000 South Sudanese refugees live in the Gambella region, in western Ethiopia. Life is a daily struggle, and the possibility of returning home is still a distant dream. Nguenyyiel – the newest and largest of seven refugee camps in the region – hosts about 70,000 people, of which, 88% are women and children.
According to data collected by Action Against Hunger, 68% of pregnant women and nursing mothers in the camp are struggling with mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, acute fear, and self-harm. This directly affects their children. Psychological problems can hamper a mother’s ability to nurse, care for, and feed her small children, which can lead to malnutrition.
Nyahok and Nyalat went to the Action Against Hunger Health Center in Nguenyyiel and participated in group and individual therapy sessions. In this camp and throughout the Gambella region, our team of more than 400 staff members work each day to treat and prevent malnutrition, improve food security, and provide mental health counselling.
As part of our psychosocial outreach, we run support groups for mothers: a space where they can meet to talk, sing, and share experiences. Here, they also learn about breastfeeding, good hygiene, and other child care practices to prevent malnutrition and keep their babies healthy.
“Where there is life, there is hope,” says Mary, an Action Against Hunger psychosocial worker. The center’s key message to these women is that, together, it gets easier. “We all need others to move forward.”
The day she was admitted to the program, Nyahok realized that she was not alone. “Action Against Hunger opened my eyes,” she says. Now, she is one of the program’s best ambassadors. By sharing her story, she motivates the other women.
Before she joined the support group, Nyahok remembers that she barely had any communication with others in the camp – but now the refugee community has become her new family. “Your neighbour can treat you like a sister,” she explains. “If you get sick at night, she can visit you and if you have bad thoughts, she can get them out of your mind.”
Nyalat experienced a similar transformation. “They advised me to be strong and not be defeated by what happened in the past. Now I know that I am not the only one who has lost a husband. I must look to the future and concentrate on taking care of my children,” she pauses, and takes a deep breath. “I have started a new life.”
By the numbers
The number of people who have been forced to flee their homes due to conflict, persecution, and human rights violations has reached a new record high. According to data from the UN Refugee Agency:
70.8 million people were forcibly displaced in 2018. Of these, 29.5 million were refugees who crossed a border to find safety in another country, and 41.3 million were displaced inside their home countries.
The vast majority of refugees don’t go far: nearly four out of every five reside in a neighboring country, hoping to return home soon. But sadly, due to prolonged, entrenched conflicts, their average stay is 17 years.
More than two-thirds of the world’s refugees come from just five countries: Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar, and Somalia. 84% are now living in low- and middle-income regions, stretching already-strained resources to the brink.
It’s easy to get lost among these numbers – but data does not tell the full story. Refugees have survived unimaginable trauma. Yet, they have found the strength to persevere. Despite hardships, displaced people are women starting businesses, mothers making friendships, grandmothers learning about health and nutrition, and children dreaming of brighter futures.