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Refugees on aid pittance turn to knitting, hairdressing in Chad

DIBA 1 (Chad)

When armed gunmen stormed Ashta Sahade’s hometown of Bocaranga in Central African Republic, the only possession she grabbed as she fled was her unwieldy rectangular knitting machine.

During the two-day journey to safety in nearby Chad, on foot and on the back of a stranger’s bicycle, single mother Sahade, 27, carried the machine precariously on her head, convinced it was the key to her and her three-year-old’s survival.

In the village of Diba 1 in southern Chad, she was proven right. Not only does she make knitted goods to sell, she also teaches local Chadian women to do the same in a bid to boost her income.

She is not alone. In the past year, the population of Diba has more than doubled as a spike in violence in Central African Republic sends more refugees across the border. On the main road, dozens of new arrivals have set up makeshift trading stalls within days of escaping the conflict back home.

They sell everything from fresh beef cuts and tailored trousers to glossy hair extensions and beauty treatments. Key to the refugees’ ability to get by, along with their entrepreneurship, is their location.

They live not in isolated camps, where residents often struggle to find enough money to meet their needs, but in the midst of a Chadian village, where basic infrastructure is already in place and locals are among their main customers.

Most build their own homes from tree branches and straw.

“The idea is that it is better for refugees to settle in host communities rather than putting them in a camp where opportunities, including mixing with the locals, can be limited,” said Ibrahima Diane, a public information officer with the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) in Chad.

This new approach by international aid agencies in southern Chad is also being rolled out in the east for refugees from Sudan, as well as in other parts of Africa.

It benefits villagers too as the infrastructure set up in host communities by the agencies, including wells, clinics and schools, can be used by everyone.