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A report from limbo
The Kakuma Refugee Camp is a moderate-sized “city” of tents, shacks, and thatched roof huts in the desert of northwest Kenya, inhabited by more than 90,000 refugees (Sudanese, Ethiopian, and Somali, mostly, but also Congolese, Burundian, Rwandan, and Ugandan). Dating to 1991, it is equally a sanctuary and a prison—once admitted, residents cannot leave without permission of the Kenyan government—and inside its fences, children age into adulthood. The United Nations High Commission on Refugees administers the camp, with aid from a patchwork of international relief agencies, or nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). In October 2006, Boston College’s Center for Human Rights and International Justice, led by David Hollenbach, SJ, cosponsored a conference in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi on the rights of forced migrants. There to give a firsthand account of the fenced-in life was the author, a 41-year-old, 12-year resident of Kakuma.
Within the Ethiopian community of the Kakuma Refugee Camp where I live is a marketplace filled with shops from which you can buy almost anything, and coffeehouses and restaurants that show the latest English Premier League football match. To the occasional visitor to the camp who sees the busy Ethiopian businesses, started with a loan from an NGO or with money sent by family from abroad, and who witnesses the refugees enjoying coffee together while watching CNN, Ethiopians in Kakuma appear to be contented and calm. But the truth is different. There are only bodies in Kakuma. Everyone’s souls are traveling; they have gone for resettlement, completed interrupted college studies, saved as much money as they wanted, in the world of daydreams.
In Kakuma people fight for no reason. Among the Ethiopians, conflicts generally blow over without becoming too serious, except for domestic problems, which do not seem to settle so quickly. A husband who is embittered by his long refugee life releases his anger on his wife: “Why are you quiet?” “Why are you late?” “Why is lunch late?” “Who was that man you were with?” These are grounds enough to use violence, or to divorce. Children are punished for playing with friends or watching TV.
A wife whose husband does not have a shop or a resettlement prospect like others, who has no task to do other than to assist her in cooking and fetching water, may see reason to despise and undermine him. She may desert him for another man.
Ninety percent of allegations brought to the Ethiopian bench court in Kakuma are domestic in nature.
I have observed that this long refugee life has made many refugees chronically absent-minded. Initially, it was a source of amusement. We talked among ourselves about going somewhere on a bicycle and returning without it, of looking for a torch with the very torch lighting our search, locking doors while people were inside, and many other incidents that were surely laughable. But it is of some concern when you hear that refugees do not remember what day, month, or year it is.
Some seem more affected than they realize, talking to themselves and gesturing emotionally. There are sleepwalkers, too. Many refugees have absent-mindedly left their homes at night and disappeared. It is customary to report the disappearance to the police and conduct a search for a day or two in the surrounding bush and cliffs. Then the search is given up and the person forgotten, without ever confirming whether the departed is dead or alive.
There is a similarity among the refugees who are affected by absent-mindedness, anxiety, and the inability to make decisions. All of them are male.
Ethiopians first sought refuge in Kenya in 1984, when a massive famine hit the country. However, a sizeable group arrived in 1991, following the overthrow of Colonel Mengistu’s Marxist government by democratic rebels. The new rulers implemented policies that favored one ethnic group over another. This brought about conflict, and a large number of Ethiopians fled south across the arid land into Kenya.
Between 1995 and 1998, a certain kind of story would pop up within the Ethiopian community in Kakuma, every two or three months: “The United States of America has requested to resettle all Ethiopian refugees, and registration will soon start”; “Australia and Canada are arguing—’Those hard-working Ethiopian refugees are not to be resettled only by the USA, we must also have a share.'” The rumor would spread quickly. Sometimes it would reach other communities in Kakuma, who would become concerned that only Ethiopians were being considered for resettlement. A mind starved of information creates information of its own and feeds on it. Then, emptiness returns.
Sebsibe Nigusie was a refugee who, no matter what, always talked of returning back home. He often fell sick of malaria, and during his illnesses he was disturbed by nightmares. One night he disappeared. After a two-day search, he was found about 25 miles from the camp, unable to say where he was going, unaware even of the direction he was going in. He was brought to the Kakuma police station, and once back in the camp seemed to be much improved.
However, after a while he again began to show strange behaviors. He said he heard voices. At this time, there were no special clinics or professionals to treat this type of illness. One morning a friend of mine told me that Sebsibe had disappeared again. It was not unexpected; many refugees had done the same before him.
This time, in collaboration with locals, a wide and long search was conducted for days. Then, a few days of mourning, and he was forgotten. After two weeks, locals found his remains, which had been ravaged by a wild animal.
Ethiopian refugees in Kakuma seem to have a collective personality. The death of one is like a blow for all. After a burial, everyone seems to have buried something of themselves. Heads are down more than normal, faces are signboards of unspeakable sorrow. Everyone is crying; weeping for himself. Who will be next? It is not fear of death exactly, but of dying as an unfulfilled refugee.
Yayeh Mamo was my neighbor who lived in the camp selling tea and coffee with his wife. He had been a fourth-year agriculture student at Alemaya University, back in Ethiopia. He had always dreamt of going abroad, completing his studies, and becoming a renowned scientist. For him, Kakuma was like the Dead Sea, without a trace of life. His wife, Sara, was often sick, so it was mainly left to him to sell the tea and coffee and buy the extra food she needed. They loved each other. In 1997 Sara gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. Yayeh always told people how his dull refugee life changed completely after the arrival of his baby.
One day Sara came home with “good news.” A neighbor had volunteered to include her name on his resettlement form as his wife, and to add Yayeh’s daughter as his own. Yayeh told me that he did not care what happened to himself, as long as his wife and child were safe somewhere. After one year, Yayeh’s wife and daughter went abroad as the wife and daughter of the other man. Yayeh hoped they would someday reunite.
Without his wife and daughter, Yayeh found life more difficult than he had imagined. The loneliness was unbearable, nothing could take the place of their voices. The occasional letter he received from Sara was never enough to quench his longing. One day Sara wrote Yayeh a letter that made him deeply regret what he had done: The health of his daughter was deteriorating as she cried constantly for her beloved father. She was not sleeping well, not eating well. All letters and phone calls became about the decline of his daughter’s health. Anxiety-stricken, Yayeh fled Kakuma for Nairobi, more than 500 miles away, where he could make cheaper international phone calls to hear the voice of his daughter. He never returned to Kakuma.
Refugees who spend years and years stagnating in a camp seem unable to think sensibly, or even sanely. They are impulsive, like an animal cornered by its predator. They burn their own houses and accuse a neighbor of doing it; wound their own bodies with knives and accuse others of acting against them out of ethnic differences. Women report being raped by someone they know as a way to gain resettlement and freedom.
Sometimes Ethiopians marry non-Ethiopians to set up their escape from the camp. For example, an Ethiopian man marries a Somali woman. Soon problems occur, and the family of the woman—called a “case wife”—attacks the man. Then, an appeal is made to camp officials by the man: “My wife is a Somali woman and now her family and other Somalis are threatening to kill me.” The couple are given permission to leave the camp. By prior agreement, the marriage will be dissolved once they are out of Kakuma.
Mohamed Ali is an Ethiopian refugee. He was about 35 years old at the time of the incident I’m about to describe, and the owner of a small shop. He had a “case wife.” She was from the Somali community. He had many times appealed to camp officials that his life was in danger, but his claims did not convince them. Then the couple had a new idea. One night there was a shout of distress and a call for help. Neighbors arrived at the house of Mohamed Ali to find his wife rolling on the ground burning all over in a fire that smelled of kerosene. Strangely, Mohamed was taking snapshots. They were most likely for evidence. Mohamed never thought that photographing his burning wife rather than trying to save her would jeopardize his “case.”
Ethiopians fleeing their homeland in 1991 initially settled for about two years in northeast Kenya’s Walda Refugee Camp before heading to Kakuma. During this period, the 800 or so displaced college students who were living in Walda founded a library in a tent, with six fiction books collected from friends and written in Amharic, Ethiopia’s national language. In 1993, the library was transplanted to Kakuma, and in 2006 it boasted more than 15,000 volumes—textbooks, reference books, novels—and many magazines.
The librarian who volunteered in the Walda camp library in 1992 is now the chief librarian at Kakuma. For all he has done to create and expand the library, he still feels unfulfilled. When he fled his homeland, he was 20 years old and in his second year of library science studies at Addis Ababa University. Today he is a graying man of 37.
Ex-students of higher education are well represented in the Ethiopian refugee community. Almost all of them work as teachers in the camp schools—kindergarten through high school—earning an “incentive” that amounts to less than $50 a month and collecting their food ration. (Kenyan law prohibits the employment of refugees; they can only volunteer and receive token incentives for doing so.) There is precious little other work or activity in the camp that can stimulate their minds, and in this long camp life, they seem to have lost what they learned at college. Yet some of their students, having grown up, are now in colleges and universities, and in the camp, some are inspectors and head teachers.
I ask the teachers how they feel when they see a student rise from kindergarten to head teacher of the school they themselves teach in. They say they are proud of their students’ achievements, but they are also very sad. “For the last 15 years,” one said to me, “I was like a ladder standing against the wall. All of those students of mine climb on me and reach where they want to, as I continue standing forevermore leaning against the wall.”
Abebe Feyissa studied psychology at Addis Ababa University. He fled Ethiopia in 1991, and since 1992 he has lived in refugee camps in Kenya. At the Kakuma Refugee Camp, he is a counselor for the Jesuit Refugee Service. Rebecca Horn was a clinical psychologist on the staff of the Jesuit Refugee Service in Kakuma from 2003 to 2006. The names of camp residents in this essay have been changed. This article was drawn and adapted from a paper presented at the 2006 conference in Nairobi cosponsored by Boston College’s Center for Human Rights and International Justice, the Jesuit Refugee Service, and Catholic Relief Services, and reprinted by permission. Georgetown University Press will publish the conference papers later this year as a book edited by David Hollenbach, SJ, titled Refugee Rights: Ethics, Advocacy, and Africa.
At a time when some 33 million people worldwide have either fled their countries of birth or live as forced migrants within their native lands, a quiet academic multidisciplinary research group is attempting to serve those who serve the dispossessed. The Center for Human Rights and International Justice at Boston College was started in 2005 not only to advocate for refugees but also to be an intellectual sounding board and idea generator for the world’s legions of relief workers.
In October 2006, the center sponsored its first international conference, in Nairobi, Kenya, drawing speakers from across Africa and the West to focus on such subjects as repatriation, protection, and freedom of movement for refugees. A conference planned for November at Boston College will take a broad view, addressing the root causes of the global refugee problem and solutions to it. Speakers will include Walter Kalin, the representative of the Secretary-General of the United Nations on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons, and Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the permanent observer of the Holy See to the U.N.’s office in Geneva. The Jesuit Refugee Service, an international organization with programs in more than 20 countries, expects to send all nine of its regional directors to the conference, which it is cosponsoring.
The idea for the center came in part from the experiences of its director, David Hollenbach, SJ, a professor of theology at Boston College, during a stint in Kenya in the mid-1990s. Hollenbach, who has made a career of exploring issues of human rights and social justice, was teaching at Nairobi’s Hekima College, a Jesuit theology school for priestly formation. In his class were students from eastern and central Africa, regions torn by violence, forced migration, and genocide. Hollenbach accompanied John Guiney, SJ, former director of the Jesuit Refugee Service in eastern Africa, to the Kakuma refugee camp, flying the 500 miles aboard a cargo plane with wooden benches on his first visit. The result, over time, was Hollenbach’s design for an academic center that could support the day-to-day work of the relief providers.
The center is “a great example for us and a great help,” says Kenneth Gavin, SJ, national director of Jesuit Refugee Service/USA and an attendee at the Nairobi conference. Its efforts provide aid workers, often consumed by daily emergencies, with “a better theological and philosophical underpinning [for] what we’re doing. We don’t want to do just Band–Aid type work,” he says. Gavin cites the center’s concerns with the ethical implications of confining refugees to camps such as Kakuma; with maintaining the dignity of long-time camp residents; and with finding permanent solutions to regional food shortages. The center, he says, “helps us hone where we should be moving our advocacy.”
Not all of the center’s work involves international refugees. Professor Daniel Kanstroom of Boston College Law School heads a project that studies U.S. deportation law and policy and provides legal assistance to deportees. And Professor M. Brinton Lykes of the Lynch School of Education leads research on the problems of Americans displaced by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Seth Gitell is a writer based in Boston.