Saturday, May 5, 2012

Visit to a Refugee Camp

One of the things that I wanted to do before I left Kenya was to visit one of the refugee camps in the northern part of the country.  A large portion of the students that I worked with in Houston were refugees from various countries in Africa.  Many of them had only known life in a refugee camp before they came to the States.  This created an interesting behavioral dynamic that I sometimes had a hard time handling.  I wanted to at least see what life was like in a camp, so that, hopefully, I'll be able to relate better to future refugees that I work with.

The way things worked out, I was able to spend about 3 days in Kakuma Refugee camp, near the Sudanese border.  I am in no way suggesting that this is even close to enough time to really understand what it is like for the people who live there.  I am also not suggesting that the camp I visited is like every other camp.  I have no idea how representative it is.   That said, I do think it was a worthwhile visit and being there did allow me some perspective and interesting insight into the lives of the displaced.

In order to get there, I did some research to find out which organizations were working in the camp and managed to find a fairly comprehensive list of acronyms.  So I googled each one and sent out emails to any organization with an accessible email address explaining who I was and why I wanted to visit the camp.  A couple weeks after I had given up on hearing back from any of them, I got an email from the Lutheran World Federation saying that they would be happy to help me out with my visit.

LWF helped get me on the UNHCR flight and shuttle from Nairobi to the camp, which is basically in the middle of nowhere.  From the tiny tiny airport in Lokichoggio, we had about a 2 hour drive (with an armed convoy) through essentially open wilderness to the town and the camp.  LWF also hosted me in one of their guesthouses, set up opportunities for me to meet with some of the refugees and showed me around the camp.  I wouldn't have been able to do much without their help.

Kakuma is huge.  It currently houses about 80,000 refugees.  It is separated into different communities, largely based on ethnic origin, and each community has leaders that help deal with the day to day running of the community.  Residents and locals are allowed to come and go as they please (though residents can't go farther than 10km) but by 6pm residents must be back in their communities and locals must be out of the camp.  Apparently there is a lot of commerce that happens between the locals and the refugees.  I was amazed at how developed the communities were.  Each one seemed to have its own shops, restaurants, hairdressers, etc.  I had expected to find nothing but temporary homes in tents and huts.
Shops on the main road in the Somalian community.
Several homes

I had told LWF before I left that I was most interested in the lives of youth and families in the camp, so they set up several meetings for me with various groups including a group of junior high/high school youth, a few unaccompanied minors, and a large group of foster parents.  They also showed me the reception center, where refugees first come when they arrive at the camp, as well as some of the youth and cultural programs that were happening within the camp.  I had a really interesting time talking with my LWF hosts and the different groups to find out about life in the camp.
Girls in remedial classes during spring break - there has been a lot of emphasis on helping girls in the past few years.

This is the first home a family receives when they arrive.  They stay here for 2 weeks before they are moved to  a more permanent home.  

Overall, I felt like I had a very successful visit.  Three days is not nearly enough to really understand the life that the refugees lead, but I feel like I got a good sampling of what it's like.  It was very eye-opening to see people that reminded me of my former students and their parents in a context outside of Western society. I feel like I have a much better understanding of their frame of reference when arriving in America.  Which is good, seeing as that was the point of the trip and it seems like a valuable insight, especially given that I'd like to do more work with refugees in the future.
The Dinka Tribe (from South Sudan) still practices their cultural dancing every Sunday evening.

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