Mentao — When thousands of Malian families started streaming through his village in northern Burkina Faso earlier this year, Ahmid Ag Rali was struck by the number of children among the refugees. Moved and keen to help, the 35-year-old from Oudalan province quit his job with a foreign mining company and applied to join UNHCR.
Today, he plays an important role as a community services assistant, helping the most vulnerable among the arriving refugees, including older people, pregnant women and those living with disability. But UNHCR's operation for tens of thousands of Malian refugees is hampered by security concerns and funding needs, which is affecting its ability to help the needy.
Up at the crack of dawn, the 1.85 metres tall Ahmid is usually the first person that the overnight arrivals see at Mentao refugee camp after their journey from the border, some 95 kilometres to the north. It's more than a job for the local lad, who calls the Malians members of his "extended family" - as a Tuareg born and bred in Burkina Faso, he is ethnically related to many of them.
"Since I was a child, I have always wanted to make a difference in people's lives," Ahmid said here in Mentao, one of two refugee camps in his home province. "To become a humanitarian was my true vocation - at UNHCR I feel at home." As a local who was lucky enough to complete secondary school, he also expresses concern about the welfare of the children. More than half of the refugees in Burkina Faso are below 18 years of age.
Ahmid greets the new arrivals with a hearty "taberakam," which means "welcome" in Tamasheq, a variety of Tuareg that is spoken in Timbuktu and other areas of Mali. Hospitality is a vital component of Tuareg culture and Ahmid places great importance on making tired, scared and vulnerable refugees feel safe, cared for and at home when they reach Mentao.
"My welcoming ceremony is an art. If I misplace my gaze, or any of my words, I can lose their trust forever," he said recently at the camp, which opened last April and hosts just over 6,000 people. They have fled from fighting that started in January between Mali government forces and a rebel Tuareg movement.
The local knowledge, language skills and cultural sensitivity of national staff like Ahmid is vital to UNHCR as it strives to help the more than 200,000 Malians who have fled to neighbouring countries, mainly Burkina Faso (35,000), Mauritania (108,000) and Niger (64,000). The refugees in Mentao include Tuaregs, Arabs and Songhai, making a visit to the camps a rich cultural experience.
Although basic assistance has been provided from the start, security problems and difficult access to the camps along sandy roads has restricted the refugee agency's ability to do more in the Oudalan camps. The agency also needs to keep open a funding pipeline at a time when Ahmid's community services team, among others, is understaffed despite recent donations from several sources.
Ahmid grew up in Oudalan, one of the poorest and most arid provinces in one of the world's poorest countries - Burkina Faso ranks 181 in the UN Human Development Index. Most of those who fled to Burkina Faso, almost 80 per cent, made their way to Oudalan. So Ahmid naturally feels a sense of responsibility for people who have landed on his doorstep.
But it is a major logistical challenge getting relief items and personnel to this remote and undeveloped area at a time when the harsh conditions in the Sahel region are compounded by food and water shortages. Some aid workers have dubbed the situation as the "double crisis" because the refugees have fled to a region where the locals were already suffering.
Ahmid just gets on with helping the neediest and making them feel good. His success can be judged by their smiling faces whenever he turns up. He knows all those in his care by name and helps them get access to food distributions, health care and other services provided by UNHCR and its partners.
One such case is Offeda, who heads a household of 80 but can no longer walk because of his paralyzed legs. Offeda arrived in Mentao refugee camp in late January after fleeing from Timbuktu in a car driven by his youngest son. Thanks to Ahmid's constant visits and shared language, Offeda feels assisted and cared for.
When asked about his own family and being separated for long periods from his wife and new-born child, Ahmid explained: "I have two homes, one in the camps, where I can create a better world, and the second with my family where I can live in the better world that has been created."