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One Mother's Perspective On What It's Like To Be A Refugee

Assaga camp in Niger is home to some 6,000 refugees, either displaced within the country or from across the border in Nigeria.
Issouf Sanogo
AFP/Getty Images
Assaga camp in Niger is home to some 6,000 refugees, either displaced within the country or from across the border in Nigeria.

It's World Refugee Day today, and the head of the UN's refugee agency, FiIippo Grandi, has released some startling statistics – starting with the fact that there are 65 million refugees, asylum seekers and displaced persons. That's a record number.

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And behind every number, there is a story.

Falmata Baba Gana is one of the 65 million. She's a 30-year-old mother who fled her village in northeastern Nigeria almost a year ago after an attack by Boko Haram. She and her 7 children crossed the border into Niger and arrived at the Assaga camp, now home to some 6,000 refugees and people uprooted from their homes within Niger. Located in the Diffa region in southeast Niger, it's a makeshift refuge, buffeted by Sahara desert sands and winds, and running alongside Niger's main east-west expressway.

Baba Gana says she's still traumatized by the bloodshed she witnessed at home — and so is her young family.

"During the last holy fasting month of Ramadan, Boko Haram came to our village. Pa, pa, pa, pa," she imitates the sound of gunfire. "They rounded up the men at the mosque and killed about a dozen. And they burned down our market. Even now, the children dream about Boko Haram, and they cry in the night and remember the gunfire and dead bodies. They still tremble, I still tremble," she says.

Baba Gana says some people lost children or left them behind in the melee. And, she says, they're worried about the possibility of more extremist violence and attacks. "We feel safer this side of the border, but we know that there may be more of these frightening raids," she says.

In addition to the security problems, Niger is suffering a food shortage, and Baba Gana says that the refugees at the camp are hungry.

"Life is very difficult for us. We don't have enough food. When we were at home, we ate three times a day. Now it's very difficult," she says. "Children are in school, but they can't concentrate because sometimes they have food, sometimes they don't. We don't even have sufficient drinking water."

Still, the children sing and draw water from the well. Women in colorful clothes huddle to discuss their problems. And men head out in search of firewood for cooking.

Meanwhile, idle young men, like 25-year-old Adam Alhaji Bukar, look bored and fiddle with mobile phones.

The unrest has disrupted Niger's economy. The 80,000 Nigerians who fled here — and more than 150,000 internally displaced Nigeriens — struggle to find jobs. With many markets closed because of insecurity or destroyed by Boko Haram, there are virtually no opportunities for work for young men like Bukar, who was a farmer back home in Nigeria.

He hopes he'll soon be able to return home. Not much chance of that.

"We know the Nigerian refugees and our own displaced Nigeriens want to go home. But it's not yet safe," says Magagi Lawan, Niger's minister for humanitarian affairs and disaster management. "We, the government of Niger, are doing all we can to ensure that everything is in place to keep them safe from Boko Haram attacks here at Assaga camp and to find them food."

Listlessly Bukar tells reporters "We have fallen through the cracks living here in Assaga. There are no markets. There's no business and we simply have nothing to do."

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Corrected: June 19, 2016 at 8:00 PM AKDT
An earlier version of this story said a U.N. count found 135 million refugees, internally displaced, and asylum seekers around the world. The U.N. says there are 65 million total.
Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is an award-winning broadcaster from Ghana and is NPR's Africa Correspondent. She describes herself as a "jobbing journalist"—who's often on the hoof, reporting from somewhere.