DIBA 1, Chad (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - 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 U.N. 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.
Today, close to 10,400 refugees from Central African Republic live across 23 villages in southern Chad, while about 60,500 others are housed in six refugee camps.
In Diba, Chadian couple Aimé Eri-Ada and Catherine Yawa Gom are waiting to see the nurse at the village’s new health post with their baby who has malaria. “He was vomiting. I brought him here urgently,” said Eri-Ada.
Before, the family had to walk 8 km (5 miles)to get medical treatment. The area has no paved roads and its muddy paths often turn into swamps in the rainy season. Travelers dodge snakes and mosquitoes, hitching rides on overloaded trucks.
But with five children, trips to the doctor are unavoidable. “There are many problems of malaria, diarrhea and so on,” said Eri-Ada. “Now we can come here - and it’s free.”
Yet resources are stretched to breaking point. At the clinic, refugees and locals complain there often isn’t enough medication – and that is just the tip of the iceberg.
Refugees, some of whom arrived a few days ago, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation they barely receive any food rations.
Sahade is entitled to aid of 3,000 Central African francs ($5.38) each month in cash or food vouchers - the equivalent of about 18 cents a day. Yet the last time this paltry allowance materialized was five months ago, she said.
“My biggest problems are the lack of food, the lack of money - and having enough strength to keep on working,” she said, breastfeeding her two-week-old baby.
Spillover from the conflict in Central African Republic - which has produced at least seven waves of refugees since 2003 fueled by impunity, marauding gangs and illegal diamond trading - is largely forgotten in a part of the world most people would struggle to pinpoint on a map.
Between 2014 and 2017, 34 out of 57 aid agencies working in southern Chad pulled out due to a lack of funding, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
So far this year, only about a third of the $588.6 million requested by a U.N.-backed appeal to fund humanitarian response in Chad for 2017 has been donated.
The World Food Program says landlocked, arid Chad faces a critical shortfall in food supply, while the 2016 Global Hunger Index places it second last out of 117 countries.
Inadequate food rations are linked to many other problems, including malnutrition, early marriage, domestic violence, and women and children having sex to survive, aid workers and refugees say.
“There are many orphans, children separated from their families, unaccompanied minors – many of them haven’t been to school for two years. We need support,” said Idriss Dairou, president of the refugees’ association in Diba.
The situation is compounded by Chad’s own problems. The 2016 Human Development Index ranks it as the world’s third least-developed country after Central African Republic and Niger.
Of its 14.2 million people, almost half live below the poverty line. Yet it is also the African country that takes in the biggest number of refugees proportionate to its population, according to the United Nations.
Given the low level of aid, refugees in Diba want international partners to help them with farming, animal-rearing and other activities, Dairou said. “This way we can try and work ourselves in order to have enough to eat,” he said.
The international humanitarian arm of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) has set up centers in camps to train mixed groups of refugees and locals in skills such as carpentry, mechanics, tailoring, woodwork and IT.
Among the 57 apprentices in Dosseye camp, 35 are from Central African Republic and 22 from Chad. On graduating, many hope to set up businesses together.
Some are already making this a reality. In downtown Goré, a city about 170 km from Diba, refugee Atom Al-Kabboro and Chadian Mahamat Abakar run a hairdressing salon. “La Main Sûre” (A Trusty Hand), set up with LWF funding, caters to both Chadians and refugees and is popular with the aid community.
But back in Diba, the future is clouded by uncertainty as more refugees arrive.
Village chief Jacques Marboua worries that without more aid, there will be grave problems on the horizon. The refugees’ monthly allowance, when it comes through, “is not enough at all”, he said, shaking his head.
Living alongside locals, their fortunes are intertwined, he added. “If (the refugees) don’t have enough to eat, they will go and steal from our fields,” he said.
“If they get sick, we’ll also get sick. We share the same wells, we work together, we drink bili-bili (local beer) together.”
“We’ve welcomed them with open arms,” he said. “But now we’re afraid for our future.”
Reporting by Inna Lazareva; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit news.trust.org/