What is it Like to Be an African Refugee?
Published October 19, 2016
Kakuma. A hot, harsh, dry place. Prone to sandstorms and droughts. Thorny bushes and flat topped trees are the only vegetation.
And it's also home to 185,000 people in Kenya’s second biggest refugee camp.
The Kakuma Refugee Camp has existed for 29 years, and during that time, has served as a temporary home for hundreds of thousands of displaced people who have found themselves at its gates. No one wants their life circumstances to lead them to a refugee camp.
Especially one in a landscape as harsh and unforgiving as Kakuma.
Initially the camp was built as a temporary refuge, but its gates have been open far longer than anyone anticipated.
How Did Kakuma Start?
Kakuma Refugee Camp was created when the Lost Boys of Sudan showed up at the border of Kenya. These boys fled their homes when violence erupted in their home country. They fled without parents or caretakers.
The trip from Sudan to Kenya was fraught, with many, many of these children dying on the way. 20,000 children were separated from their families during the violence in Sudan, and thousands of the boys died on the journey that followed. Many were picked off by lions or crocodiles, some starved to death, some were killed by hostile tribes, and some simply gave up hope, letting their bodies sink to the ground, and never getting up again.
They get their name from the story of Peter Pan, a group of boys without supervision or families, looking out for one another the best they can. Some of the Lost Boys are still in Kakuma.
29 years after it was created for them.
Some of them were able to move to America and Canada, but the terrorist attacks on 9/11 derailed the program, putting a permanent pause on any more of the boys moving. Many of the boys who didn’t make it to America or Canada still live in Kakuma, even after all this time.
They’re still lost.
Who Lives in Kakuma?
Since its creation, dozens of other conflicts have filled the camp with refugees. These displaced people come from nearby countries, mostly fleeing the internal violence of civil wars. There are people from Sudan, Somalia, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda and Ethiopia living in the camp right now.
That’s quite the variety of people and cultures to all find themselves living together in a small space. One of the challenges that faces aid workers in the camp is reconciling the different belief systems and lifestyles of the many different people who find their way into the camp.
There are also the relationships between the refugees and the local tribe, the Turkana tribe, to consider. Over the years that Kakuma has existed, the interactions between the refugees and the Turkana have sometimes been tense.
At the beginning, the Turkana tribe was concerned about the number of people settling into their homeland, and was also opposed to marriage between their children and the refugees. However, as time has gone on, the suspicion has lessened. Now, a lot of business goes on between them, which has helped build friendships and trust between the refugees and the locals. Now, intermarriage is accepted, and happens regularly.
There's still the occasional tension between the refugees and the locals, but overall their relationship has improved greatly.
What is it Like to be a Refugee?
Kakuma is a harsh landscape.
The refugees there live in houses built of tarps and dirt, ill-protected from the elements. There are few wells in the camp, which means that people are often forced to wait for hours at a time to obtain water. Sandstorms are also common in Kakuma, filling food and water containers with gritty earth, the plastic tarps unable to keep it all out.
The people who find themselves at the entrance of Kakuma are people who have lost everything they had ever known. Many have lost families, and all of them have lost their homes. Most of the people in the Kakuma Refugee Camp have fled violence in their home countries. They arrive at the border of Kenya, not necessarily looking for Kakuma itself. When they arrive, they are sent to the UN, who then sends them to Kakuma. Some of the residents of the camp were born there and have never known any home but the camp.
Out of these bleak situations, they’ve created a place where they can at least live among each other in relative peace, and provide for each others’ very human needs within the camp.
Because the refugee camp has been there for so many years, those who live there have built up their own society. The refugees there have created their own restaurants and barber shops, among other stores. They are living in mud huts, with roofs of sheet metal and sometimes tarps functioning as walls.
They are displaced from their original homelands and are victims of political violence and civil wars. But out of these bleak situations, they’ve created a place where they can at least live among each other in relative peace, and provide for each others’ very human needs within the camp.
The refugees in Kakuma have done well with what they had. But it is, still, difficult for them to permanently leave the refugee camp, and begin a life outside it again. One of the many difficulties that plays into this is that it is hard for refugees to obtain a work permit. Most refugees don’t have them, and so “volunteer” at various jobs instead, and are paid incentives for their work. The incentives are much less than a salaried native would be paid.
The inability to make a living wage makes it very difficult for refugees to ever leave the camps they live in. The difficulties of obtaining work permits make the refugee’s futures harder to make secure. There are, however, schools within the camp. These schools allow refugee children and adults to finish their educations and give them a chance at applying for work permits within Kenya.
For these refugees, finishing their educations can make all the difference.
The Future of Kakuma?
Right now, there’s a possibility that the Kenyan government might shut Kakuma down. Even though it was initially built as a place of temporary shelter, it’s since become home to around 185,000 people. There are children who have been born in this camp, and have never known any other home than Kakuma. If the camp was to be closed, all of these people would be forced to go back to their home countries.
Many of these countries still haven’t achieved peace, and functionally, these people have no homes to return to.
185,000 people is a vast number of people to displace by shutting down the camp. To do so creates a huge logistical problem for those who work there, and would be devastating to those who live in the camps.
It’s hard to say what will happen if it gets shut down.
For now, Kakuma is still home to many, many refugees. Kakuma is home to many stories, much ingenuity, much hardship, and much grief. These are people who have overcome a lot to be in Kakuma, and have overcome a lot to create a life in Kakuma.