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Field diary: At a refugee camp in Kenya, a father's devotion helps his young son survive

By Christopher Tidey

DADAAB, Kenya – Most of the Somali refugees crossing into Kenya to escape drought and conflict are women and children. Many of the families I saw queued at the Dadaab refugee reception centres were headed by mothers, grandmothers and older sisters. I often wondered where all the men have gone.

This dearth of men is what makes Abdile all the more remarkable. In a community of mothers, Abdile stands apart as the consummate father.

Abdile, his wife, four children and their paternal grandmother left home in Somalia in search of food and water after the drought had claimed their crops and livestock. During the 25-day journey, Abdile’s wife succumbed to starvation, while he was forced to will his family forward, at times literally carrying three of his four children on his back.

“We had no choice, but to continue,” he said. “We had to keep moving or we would die.”

More than medical care

Aden, 3, Abdile’s youngest son, grew increasingly malnourished as their food and water supply dwindled. By the time the family reached the refugee settlement in Dadaab, Aden was so weak that he didn’t have the strength to lift his head or swallow.

As he was rushed to the hospital, his 5 kg body was perilously close to shutting down. Doctors at the Hagadera hospital wondered whether he would survive.

Two weeks later, Aden was still in the hospital. In fact, he was getting stronger, improving in small increments each day. When I went to visit Aden last, his weight had risen to 6.1 kg and he was beginning to eat solid food. His muscles remain terribly weak, but he is finally able to stand with support for a few seconds at a time.

Aden’s slow but steady recovery comes as a result of near constant treatment from the dedicated staff at the Hagadera hospital and a regime of therapeutic feeding provided by UNICEF. But I think there was more to his improving condition than medical care alone.

‘He will survive this’

Every time I visited Aden at the hospital, his father was there. The doctors told me that since Aden was admitted, Abdile has been a fixture at his bedside. Each day, the routine is the same. Abdile, the only father in the ward, stays with his son, while Aden’s grandmother cares for his three siblings.

Each night, Abdile stayed at the hospital so that Aden could fall asleep under his watchful gaze. The delicacy and love with which Abdile touched, fed, reassured and held his fragile son was a truly beautiful sight – the embodiment of what it means to be a parent.

Just as he willed his family to survive the journey to Kenya despite the enormity of their loss, he willed Aden to survive in the hospital. 

“Now, more than ever, it is important for our family to stay together,” Abdile told me during our last visit. “My son is getting better day by day, and I know that he will survive this.”

Humanitarian response

Thousands of new malnutrition cases in children are being reported in the Dadaab camps each month, mostly among newly arrived refugees. Across the region – in Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and Djibouti – well over 2.3 million children are believed to be malnourished as a result of the drought, rising food prices and political instability.

More than half a million severely malnourished children in the region are at risk of imminent death. To save their lives, the global humanitarian response must be immediate.

UNICEF is working to deliver unprecedented quantities of life-saving therapeutic and supplementary foods to children at risk in the Horn of Africa. By plane, truck and ship, we delivered over 4,000 metric tonnes of nutrition supplies to some of the hardest-hit and hardest-to-reach areas in Somalia alone.

UNICEF will expand supplementary feeding to reach hundreds of thousands more children and their families as quickly as possible.  The 800 feeding centres across Somalia, including 500 in the south, assist 35,000 malnourished children monthly. Plans are underway to more than double efforts to reach 100,000 children like Aden.

Sometimes, because of the tremendous suffering I see here, I wonder whether the international community is capable of mounting a response that is equal to the humanitarian challenges on the ground. But then I think about Abdile and Aden, their struggle, their bond and their triumph. And I remember that there is still hope in this land.

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