Last month, I visited Goudoubo camp in Burkina Faso with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. Here I met Malian refugees who fled their country after conflict broke out in the North in early 2012. There are over 34,000 Malian refugees in Burkina Faso - most of whom are from northern Mali.
Mali is my home. I too have felt the impact of this crisis, which forced me to change my life as well - although not to the extent of the refugees. As a singer, songwriter and performer, I want to shine a spotlight on the situation, to share people's stories and do whatever I can to help. This feels like a forgotten crisis. I want to remind the world about it.
At the entrance to the refugee camp in Goudoubo I was greeted by a line of elders. I walked slowly up the line shaking hands with everyone and suddenly I was overcome - one man, Mohammed, reached out and we hugged. There was something so symbolic about this, I can't explain - a linking of north and south - and everyone immediately felt more at ease.
We headed to a child's safe play area where children were singing and learning new songs. I couldn't help myself when they handed me the doundou / drums and we jammed for a while with the children echoing my words and everyone joining in. It felt good to be able to sing and smile with these young people who have suffered so much already in their lives.
Next we visited Izata, a 32 year-old woman who fled from Gao with her husband in 2012. He had then returned to Mali and been killed. Izata is now looking after her two children alone. She is struggling to get by and to deal with her grief and isolation. She told me that everything we saw in her tattered shelter had been given to her - the bedding, the mats, the pots, pans and even the clothes she was wearing. When the family fled their home they had absolutely nothing on them, and they had walked for five days to get to safety. It was so sad to hear her stories and to sit in the small shelter where she has lived for the past two years without any hope, at this point, of returning home because of the ongoing situation in the North of Mali.
We then visited a family whose son was severely disabled - he lay moaning on a filthy mattress, his parents slowly flicking away the flies that crowded around his dribbling mouth. The father, Oukata, from the Bella ethnic tuareg tribe, told us that it had been 6 O'clock in the evening when he looked up from his home to see many of the other villagers running out of their houses. He did not stop to ask questions, he just grabbed his son and ran - later on meeting up with his wife and then travelling together with his son tied to his back for five days to get to safety. Oukata tells us he is grateful to the Burkina Faso government for giving them safety, but his wish is to return home and be back in his own lands and his country.
When I was performing with Africa Express in Manchester, I remember listening to singers and the song went: "When will I go back home?", and I was in tears because at that time I didn't know if it would ever be possible to build my dreams as I had imagined them before the crisis. There are still 167,000 Malian refugees between Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger. These people have nothing - no home, no belongings of their own and, as things stand at the moment, no hope of building their own dreams.
I urge governments, aid agencies, and individuals not to forget about the Malian refugees; I find it hard to believe that if people saw their situation, as I have, that they would allow this tragic humanitarian crisis to carry on.
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