MARY T MURPHY, perhaps Cork’s most famous aid worker, will swap the dusty refugee camps of Ethiopia for long walks on Ballyvourney’s country roads on St Stephen’s Day, but until then it’s business as usual in her east-African compound.
Mary T, is a refugee programme manager for GOAL, and currently works across two camps in southern Ethiopia, that are home to nearly 300,000 refugees who have fled from the civil war conflict of neighbouring South Sudan.
“For myself, we are working as usual until Christmas Eve, then we may have a party in our GOAL compound, and we will try and do something special.
“Many of my wonderful Ethiopian colleagues celebrate Christmas in January as they have a different calendar of events,” she explains.
As for the South Sudanese refugees who she has cared for on a daily basis since March 2014, they are just happy to be away from the conflict in their home country.
“They’ll go to their churches, that they have established in the camps made of straw and thatch roofs.
“What most people will do on that day is sing and dance — that’s how it will be celebrated — there’ll be nothing extra for Christmas. The people have a general food ration that’s supplied on a monthly basis and that’s what they survive on,” says Mary T.
“For the South Sudanese refugees, Christmas is very much the same as every other day, they are living their lives in a refugee camp far from their own land.
“It is a basic, simple way of life with mothers struggling to keep their children healthy making sure they have enough food, water and shelter.
“The refugees are happy to be safe and away from war and conflict,” she adds.
While the refugees are Christian, the children have no concept of Santa.
“It wouldn’t be part of the culture as such. People have been removed from their houses, they barely have clothes, it wouldn’t be a culture of having anything,” Mary T says.
The civil war broke out in South Sudan in December 2013, following a number of other conflicts. Young children and women began fleeing across the border, on foot into nearby Ethiopia.
Since Ethiopia’s famine in 1984, the country has a policy of helping others in need and leaves its borders open to them.
The South Sudanese were coming daily, in their hundreds into the camps in Gambella that Mary T helped to establish.
“I’m here now in Gambella since March 2014. We are working in two camps. So the first camp that we opened and set up the nutrition programme in was in March 2014.
“When that camp became full then we moved to the next camp, which is only about seven kilometers away from it.
“We base our accommodation between the two camps. The situation is much more stable now as standards and everything have improved within the accommodations.
“The camp is basic but the malnutrition levels and that have improved greatly from when the refugees initially arrived. They adapt,” she explains.
Both the Irish President Michael D Higgins, along with a delegation from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Irish Aid visited the camps last November.
Last summer, RTÉ broadcaster Ryan Tubridy visited the camps, where temperatures reach more than 40C.
Mary T has not seen a drop of rain for almost two months.
“It’s dry season now, so we haven’t had rain since the beginning of November, quite different to Ireland and we won’t have rain again until April,” she says.
This is one reason she looks forward to coming for a short break on St Stephen’s Day.
When she finishes work on Christmas Eve in the camps she’ll make her way to the capital of Addis Ababa on Christmas Day, where she’ll take a night flight home to Ireland.
“I am very much looking forward to going home to Ireland and meeting up with all my great friends and family and catching up on all the home news, going for long walks on the country roads, and making plans for 2016,” she says.
Missing Christmas Day at home is not an usual thing for Mary T, as she’s been working out in Africa since 1994.
“I have spent many Christmases overseas mainly in Congo DRC, Burundi, South Sudan and Ethiopia. I’m fortunate to have such an interesting job,” she says.
Described as “indefatigable”, the Cork woman, has not lost even a twang of her accent, nor her kindness, having spent more than 20 years abroad, in some of the most hostile places on the planet, tending to the world’s most unfortunate of people.