Maybe the “Best” Refugee Camp in the World—Shimelba

In the far north of Ethiopia, along the border with Eritrea, sits the Shimelba refugee camp.  The camp is occupied by primarily Tigray and Kunama peoples, with a few other ethnic groups, notably the Saho, filling out the population.  The majority of the refugees are men, most of them having fled military conscription in their native country, a former state of Ethiopia prior to the civil war that ended in 1991 with the fall of the Dergue, a communist regime with its stronghold in faraway Addis at the time. 

We returned to the camp to check up on our stove project.  Having been there in late August, early December gave the people an additional four months to become familiar with the ethanol-fueled stove.  This time around the landscape was not the rainy season-fed greens that led us to believe that the region was able to easily grow food. 

The land was every shade of khaki for as far as we could see.  We saw the rocky soil that was hidden under the teff back in August, a nutrient rich grain native to the highlands of Ethiopia.  Families were in the fields harvesting the year’s teff, scythes in hand and legs folded under them as they slowly made progress in an “old world” fashion despite their existence in the 21st Century.  Is it fair to call their methods “old world?”  Where does modernity begin? 

If the rains do not come next year, will the people survive?


“I used to dream.  I no longer am able to dream.  I don’t know if I will ever get out of here.  I used to be an engineer.  I used to have my own business…I had a future.

I escaped by hiding in a church after a friend’s wedding in a town near the border.  We stayed there until the sun went down.  We would move only at night.  When the sun came up, we would hide out in homes along the way.  Then at night, we would walk for another 6-7 hours.  When we finally made it to the border, the Ethiopian military were actually nice to us.  They told us where to get the bus and how to get to the camp.  I guess for them it is fewer enemies to fight if this war breaks out again.”   –Samson


The Shimelba refugee camp is like few other camps around the world.  A good portion of the Tigrigna refugees are from the Eritrean capital of Asmara.  Educated, urban, and having some money, they set up what amounts to a small town in the camp.  Using the money they were able to carry with them, they set up pool halls, cafes, and more than one digital satellite TV, accounting for the comforts of their former lives.  No electricity running to the camp, lighting is powered by generators.

Such a scene can lend itself to presenting a different understanding of a refugee camp.  Dirt and squalor are what we imagine a refugee camp to be.  It is that too, as is evidenced by walking across the camp to where the Kunama people live.

But while listening to Don Williams croon out from a stereo at a local café, I got to thinking about our notions of refugees and how they live.  Moreover, I had to ask myself why I thought that the amenities of an Asmaran lifestyle didn’t seem to fit the place I was occupying.

Why can’t refugees have a TV to look at while drinking a Coke with a pool stick in hand?  Does this make them less of a refugee?  Why do we accept the image of refugee as one who has dirty, torn clothes and little to eat?  Do we need children to have flies crawling in and out of their mouths (I did see this on the Kunama side) for them to be a refugee? 

A refugee is stuck.  S/He tries to make the best of their life.  If the best doesn’t adhere to my definitions of what their “best” should be, then shame on me.  Shame on me for my luxurious world view and shame on me for being able to come and go as I please. 
(written 15 January 2006)

6 comments on “Maybe the “Best” Refugee Camp in the World—Shimelba

  1. when I brows your article I thought it will deeply uncover the reality in the camp but I think you didnot visited there.
    life is miserable, living standard is very poor and human rights is supressed deep beneth the ground in the camp.
    shimelba is a camp next to hell. again wherther you like it or not shimelba is a place or a camp where humans denay there humanity and change their state to animals.

  2. i like your narration. i am one of the refugee used to live there.

  3. i’m mikiel and i am one of the refuge,and i read all.but are u sure about that?no i don’t think so.

  4. in shimelba there’s many people especially young people,they live with only hope no work.only sleeping and……….but at this time they got some chanse to leave the camp and to live in America but not all of them,yes some of them are they didn’t get this chance because of what? because of economi crises.

  5. when i open your web i read your article the “best refugee camp in the world!”it is incredible.i am one of the refugees who live in shimelba.iam sure you do not know how we live.we live with no hope ,no job,we have not enough food and no education so how can you say like that!

  6. vagoscribe

    Samson’s words are to show the contrast between what I was seeing, what I had thought, and what I was hearing. I’ve written several pieces on refugee life/conditions, and am not saying that Shimelba is an easy place to live. Not at all. For other Shimelba thoughts:

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: