Mission of mercy: Three locals head to refugee camp | AspenTimes.com

Mission of mercy: Three locals head to refugee camp

Naomi Havlen

Snowmass Village residents Susan Marks, left, George Kaye and Dr. Harriet Washton are preparing for a trip to Denan, an Ethiopian town that has become a refugee camp during a debilitating drought in the region. (Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times)

Three Snowmass Village residents are heading to a desolate corner of Africa on Tuesday to spend five days working in a free medical clinic at a refugee camp.Susan Marks, Dr. Harriet Washton and her husband, George Kaye, are taking the trip with two others as part of a small nonprofit known as The Denan Project.Denan is a small town and refugee camp in a desolate area of eastern Ethiopia, not far from its border with Somalia. This part of the Ogaden region, as the area is known, was once thriving with agricultural land, producing sorghum, and where sheep and cows grazed freely.The population boomed and the area was overgrazed; residents denuded the land for firewood, leaving it vulnerable to the drought that eventually arrived. The land dried up, making planting impossible and water scarce. Residents began to starve.Documentary filmmaker Dick Young happened upon the refugee camp in 2002 and made a short film about the people there. The ethnic Somalis in the area know that food and water might be available at the camp, and they leave their villages to walk sometimes as many as 20 days to get to the town.

In Young’s film “Denan,” he shows that the necessities of life are extremely scarce in the small camp, and groups of men bury their family members on the desolate plains every evening, marking graves with scrub brush and sticks. Young returned to his home in New York and put together The Denan Project, asking friends for donations and raising enough money to hire a doctor in the area for a year.In 2004, the nonprofit started a free medical clinic. Marks, a Snowmass resident, met Young about a year ago and began to assist the organization. Earlier this year she held a local fund-raiser that raised $10,000 for the organization.The money that The Denan Project raises is taken to Ethiopia and used to buy medical supplies and food for the refugee camp. “Every nickel raised by the group goes straight there,” Marks said.She introduced Young to Washton, who agreed to go to the clinic to treat patients. Because it is a Muslim society, often husbands don’t want their wives and daughters to visit male doctors, she said. Washton, a retired physician, has also treated patients in Haiti.”It will be like being in an emergency room. There’s no doctor there for 200 miles,” she said. “They cook with wood fires, so I expect to see some burns and infected burns, and infected cuts because they go barefoot. The kids may have worms and be suffering from malnutrition. Because genital mutilation is a custom there for women, I might see some urinary tract infections.”

Marks will be working as Washton’s assistant. Meanwhile, Kaye will tackle other problems, including getting a well drilled in the area and running a pipeline from it to Denan. A UNICEF study showed recently that a water source is about seven miles away from the village. A pipeline could cost as much as $250,000 to $350,000, he said, although villagers contend they will provide all the labor for the cost of their meals.He’ll also look into buying a generator and diesel fuel, since without electricity the village has no refrigeration to keep many medications.The three must carry in all of their own food and water for the five-day stay at the camp. They have also found a way to purchase a food known as Plumpy’nut to the village, which has been used during the most recent drought in Niger to feed malnourished children.One packet of the fortified peanut butter is 500 calories and contains milk powder and essential vitamins and minerals that will not spoil over time. Plumpy’nut has been hailed as a life-saver in Niger, and it’s cheap – a two-week supply costs about $25.Kaye notes that helping Africa does not seem to be a high priority in the United States, but the group hopes that with a little attention to their cause, they can raise awareness and support.

“The more word gets out, the more people will talk about this – I think people like to do good in their hearts,” she said. “We’re a small, little project, but we’ve gotten bigger because more people know about what’s going on over there.”For more information on The Denan Project, visit http://www.thedenanproject.com.Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is nhavlen@aspentimes.com