• A marginalized minority from Eritrea, the Kunama, fled Eritrea in 2001 and is currently living in Shimelba Refugee camp in Ethiopia.
  • The Kunama are a small population of between 60,000 and 100,000 people.
  • During the war between Eritrea and Ethiopia, the Kunama remained in an area occupied by Ethiopia. For this reason, the Kunama were seen as being disloyal to Eritrea and had to flee.
  • The Kunama make up 30% of the Shimelba Refugee camp population (the other 70% are Tigrinya, and there is some longstanding conflict between the two groups).
  • The Kunama cannot stay in Ethiopia because there they are prohibited from earning a working wage and from leaving the refugee camp.
  • 1,200 Kunama refugees have been referred for immigration to the United States by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Language, Religion and Traditional Practices

  • All Kunama speak Kunama, a Nilo-Saharan language that few non-Kunama speak. A small number of educated Kunama also speak Tigrinya, the dominant language of Eritrea that is also widely spoken in Ethiopia.
  • Kunama from rural areas practice their own religion, a monotheistic set of beliefs without the formal hierarchies and practices of Islam or Christianity.
  • Those who practice the traditional religion also loosely practice Christianity. Kunama from urban areas are usually Christian (Catholic and Protestant) or Muslim. Inter-religious marriage is common.
  • In their villages in Eritrea, the Kunama carry out many tasks communally, including house construction, firewood collection, farming, and burial rites.
  • Camp life has seen the emergence of a new form of leadership, known as the “central committee.” Made up of elected members of the community, the committee makes decisions for the group and mobilizes the community. Both men and women belong to the committee, although men outnumber women.
  • Women hold traditional roles, cooking, working in the home, and delivering and rearing children. They do not typically work outside of the home. However, when a mother dies, her children join her mother’s relatives, even if the children’s father is still alive.
  • The Kunama eat injera, a kind of pancake, along with a sauce, usually shiro, made from chickpeas. They sometimes eat millet. They add variety to their diet through carrots, tomatoes, onions, and garlic. The Kunama generally do not eat pork, apparently for cultural reasons.
  • Many Kunama lack formal education.
  • Female circumcision is a common practice when girls are 6 months to 5 years old.
  • Girls are often married at a very young age (13 or 14) to much older men.
  • Most people only have one spouse but may have multiple partners, and may have children with those multiple partners.
  • The Kunama practice traditional medicine.

Adjusting to America

  • Most Kunama will have little experience with cars, television, electricity, running water, and electric stoves and ovens.
  • In general, the Kunama lack the financial support from family and friends that other refugees may have, and have few friends or relatives living in the United States.
  • Typically, the Kunama have little work experience outside of agriculture, sewing and weaving. Because the Kunama are prohibited from leaving the refugee camp in Ethiopia, the men pass the time in recreational activities while the women take care of the home and the children.
  • Before coming to the United States, the Kunama will have had a three to five day orientation to life in America in the refugee camp to help familiarize them with modern amenities and air travel.

Further Reading
Kunama Backgrounder