14 Years in a Refugee Camp: One Somali Man's Story
This article first appeared on the website of IRIN.
Having lived in a refugee camp in northeastern Kenya since he was 10 years old, Moulid Iftin Hujale, now 24, has struggled with his identity for most of his life. Hujale, a freelance writer for IRIN, wrote this article, based on his life, to illustrate the challenges of growing up as a refugee:
"I am embarrassed when I'm forced to introduce myself as 'a Somali refugee living in Kenya'. I am no longer in Somalia and yet I am not a Kenyan citizen; so where do I belong? Am I going to be a refugee for ever? I feel I am lost in between. But I believe in who I am.
"I was only 10 years old when we first arrived in Dadaab from Somalia in late 1997. My family did not flee when the civil war erupted in 1991. We didn't leave until our father died. The beautiful coastal town of Kismayo in which I was born turned into a battlefield. And there was no option but to escape. My siblings and I were separated from our mother in our struggle to escape the heartbreaking and indiscriminate civil violence.
"The journey was full of horror, exacerbated by ugly images that we came across, like families who were left along the road because they were too exhausted to go on. I still have bad memories about it.
"Our much anticipated destination was Dadaab, a refugee camp about 100km from the Somali border. Fortunately, after travelling the whole way with relatives, my siblings and I were reunited with our mother once we reached the camp. It was the most incredible reunion of my life.
“We registered with the UN Refugee Agency [UNHCR] when we finally arrived - a milestone for all refugees because the ration card it provided entitled us to food, shelter, water and healthcare.
“I truly honour the support they offered to all the refugees, specifically the Somali community, which makes up the largest refugee population in Kenya. There is nothing I can compare to Kenya's generosity for hosting us for more than two decades.
"But when we first arrived there, we didn't realize that the camp would unfortunately become our permanent home.”
A child in the camp
"I immediately enrolled in one of the few primary schools in Ifo, one of three camps that make up the Dadaab complex. I was put in Standard Two after passing an entry test. I had no books or paper to use.
“We younger pupils had class under the big tree right in front of the principal's office. Many were the days when we missed classes due to heavy rains that the tree did not shield us from. Since we couldn’t all fit in the classrooms, we were forced to stay away from school until the ground dried.
"All the lessons were in English, except for our courses in Kiswahili, as dictated by the Kenyan curriculum.
"Throughout my primary education, I rarely heard about my home country. Most of my history classes were about Kenya and when we learned about East Africa, Somalia was a side note. I can list all the different tribes of Kenya and explain the country's history and political system, but I know almost nothing about the people, history and politics of my native soil. We memorized the Kenyan national anthem. I forgot that of my motherland.”
Struggling to get a chance
"There was only one secondary school in Ifo camp and every pupil was struggling to get a spot in it. At the end of 2005, we did our final primary examination.
"After the results were released by the Kenya national examination council, UNHCR and its partners in Dadaab had to see how much funding was available and decide how many refugee pupils could be admitted to high school. It didn’t matter how many qualified candidates there were. Out of more than 800 pupils who sat for the exams, only 120 were selected from Ifo camp to continue their studies. I was among the lucky ones.
"The large school compound was fenced with thorny branches cut from the bush. The walls of the classrooms were made of flattened metal recycled from the USAID oil tins that were attached to one another and fixed round the walls.
“Even the upper class rooms were tightly congested with 80 pupils crammed into one small classroom. Many of us were seated on the ground and the lucky ones shared a desk with four other children. It was a total mess, 80 kids listening to one teacher. Teachers could barely create a path to reach the students in the back benches.
"Those who didn't get the chance to go to high school had no chance. They were left stranded. Having nothing to do, most of them started abusing drugs that can be bought in the market. Many others must have joined the militia fighting back home.
"Throughout my school days I was dreaming and gaining momentum. I developed ambitions and professional goals, and believed in the power of knowledge and the opportunity that education would bring me. At the end of my final days in high school, my enthusiasm to keep learning was almost palpable.
"I completed my secondary education in 2009 and attained an [average] grade of C+, a grade that qualified me to join any university in Kenya. But all my dreams were shattered abruptly. There was no more! The authorities said even secondary education was a privilege for refugees, and there was no possibility of higher learning.
(More recently, some of the aid agencies operating in Dadaab in partnership with the UN intervened in response to the growing number of school dropouts, and developed vocational training and some very limited international scholarship opportunities.)
Unfair wages, if any
"More than 60 percent of the population in Dadaab is young. Only a few of them find work with aid agencies, as I did. I got a job as a community development worker. We are often called 'incentive workers' and are paid very poor wages regardless of our qualifications or work experience.
"The maximum amount a refugee staffer earns is US$100 a month. Some earn as little as $40 a month.
"Yet the refugee staff members do the hard part of all the operations. We go to the field daily, identify the vulnerable people in the community, carry out extensive mobilization efforts, and write reports. We act as a link between the refugee community and the agencies. We do all these difficult tasks under extremely harsh conditions.
“I am paid 10 times less than my Kenyan counterparts. It makes me feel abandoned. In fact when I get paid I feel stressed instead of joyful. How can I support myself and my family on so little?
“Also, ‘incentive staff’ get just 24 days of annual leave, whereas the local Kenyans are given two weeks off every two months. This also makes feel like the odd one out. I wonder what makes us so different. Are we not human beings like them? Is that an international law specific for the refugees? We are forced to accept these conditions and have no one to advocate for us.
"These employment conditions discourage those who are still in school. They complain that there is no need for them to go to class for 12 years and end up unemployed or working without dignity. Even the few who get diplomas and degrees remain underpaid. Under Kenyan law, refugees cannot move out of the camp, let alone access work permits.
"One of the biggest challenges the youth face in the camp is the restriction of movement. I hate looking for a travel document just to go outside the camp. The encampment policy has crippled our potential. I respect the Kenyan government for doing its job but I feel I am in prison."
Dreaming of a new life
"I've always wanted to become a journalist. I used to write for the student newspaper, and as part of my involvement with the Ifo refugee youth umbrella organization, I am currently serving as the editor of its bi-monthly newsletter known as The Refugee Newsletter.
"We normally write stories that expose the challenges as well as the achievements of the refugee community and link them up with the aid agencies. We circulate an online copy of the newsletter to the agencies and distribute printed copies to the refugees. We have a page on Facebook where we update all the daily happening of the camps, and now we're working on a blog.
"I recently found out that I got an international scholarship opportunity from the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia through its embassy in Kenya. I am very proud and excited. The fact that after all these years living as a refugee I will be sponsored through my home country makes me feel like I gained my identity back after 20 years of despair.
"My ambition is to be a professional journalist and report on humanitarian news. I would like to change the world through writing and document refugee crises or stories that are not heard and extract them for the world to see, and act. Even though it is impossible for me to achieve my goals in Dadaab refugee camp with the limited resources and opportunities, my spirit is so alive, and I have a feeling that one day I will see the reality of my dreams."