How The World's Largest Refugee Camp Remade A Generation Of Somalis | KUOW News and Information

How The World's Largest Refugee Camp Remade A Generation Of Somalis

May 28, 2015
Originally published on May 31, 2015 4:59 am

The world's largest refugee camp is also a giant social experiment.

Take hundreds of thousands of Somalis fleeing a war. Shelter them for 24 years in a camp in Kenya run by the United Nations. And offer different opportunities than they might have had if they'd stayed in Somalia.

The Kenyan government wants the experiment to end — soon. It's pushing the refugees to return to their home in Somalia, though the camp called Dadaab is the only home many have known.

Habiba Abdurahman fled the war in Somalia when she was 6 with her mother and sisters. She had lived in a village where girls rarely went to school. Suddenly she was in a camp where international organizations offered free tutoring for girls to catch up academically. In her village, female genital mutilation was common. In the camp, FGM was not only illegal but there were constant messages against it.

At 27, Abdurahman was elected a camp chairwoman, under election rules designed to promote gender equality. Last year she went back to Somalia on a U.N.-sponsored "look and see" trip to the liberated city of Kismayo. The trip was meant to assure refugees that parts of Somalia were finally safe enough to return to. But what she saw shocked her.

"In fact we have seen differences. A lot of differences," she says. "The roads were very bad. The schools were not even well-built."

Crumbling roads and schools she could have predicted because of the war. The Somali school curriculum spoke to a deeper dysfunction. One lesson would be in Arabic. The next lesson in English. It was all mixed up, she says, and it unsettled her. What kind of person would she be if she'd grown up there instead of here in the camp?

"Probably the most interesting and misunderstood thing about Dadaab is that the refugee camp has had a kind of liberalizing influence," says Ben Rawlence.

Rawlence has spent the past three years writing a book about Dadaab, especially about the earliest arrivals, who've lived most of their lives in the camp.

"They are a ready-made middle class," Rawlence says. "Educated Somalis who are ready and waiting to move into Somalia to rebuild the country."

Abshira Hassan would seem to be the perfect example of that educated class. Kenyan law forbids refugees from working. In the meantime, the 26-year-old has pursued almost every certificate course and job training a refugee can.

"Like leadership training, conflict prevention, community development, electronic records management," she says. The list goes on. "There are a lot I cannot recall that I have done," she adds.

But her 24 years in the camp have come at a cost. Her family has lost any claim on land they once owned in a country she has never known. Her unlikely fantasy is that one day the camp gates will open, and she'll be granted a Kenyan passport.

"That's nice, if we are considered as Kenyan citizens," she says.

A phrase you always hear in the camp is that the refugees will return to Somalia when it's peaceful. But that can mean different things. For Abdurahman, it means she'd go back if there's a decent school for her kids. Hassan would return if there's a chance to move from job training to an actual job. For Hussein Farah, a former science teacher who won the last election for camp chairman, it's when Somalia is safe enough to hold an actual representative vote.

"Yeah, I was elected by one man, one vote in the camp," he says.

I ask: "So you basically want Somalia to look more like Dadaab?"

"Yes! Yes of course," Farah says.

He's willing to apply the skills he has learned in the camp to rebuild his country. As soon as his country looks a lot more like his camp.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The world's largest refugee camp is also a giant social experiment. It's where hundreds of thousands of Somalis fleeing a war have been sheltered for 24 years. The camp is located in Kenya and run by the United Nations. The Kenyan government wants the experiment to end soon. It's pushing the refugees to return home to Somalia. But as NPR's Gregory Warner reports, the camp called Dadaab is the only home many have known.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: When at the age of 6, Habiba Abdurahman fled a war in Somalia with her mother and sister, she ended up leaving a village governed by Somali cultural traditions for a camp overseen by the United Nations, a village where girls rarely went to school for a camp where international organizations offered girls extra tutoring, a village where female genital mutilation was common for a camp where FGM was not only illegal but constantly messaged against.

HABIBA ABDURAHMAN: When I was arriving in Dadaab, the community was not aware of what FGM is. But the generation of today, they're well-educated and they understand everything.

WARNER: And she thrived in this environment. At age 27, she was elected a chairwoman of one of these camps. And by this point, Dadaab was the largest refugee camp in the world, home to 300,000 people - plastic tents given way to stone blocks and iron sheets. Last year, Abdurahman paid a visit back to the country she fled in 1992 on a U.N.-sponsored trip meant to convince refugees that parts of Somalia were safe enough to return to. But what she saw there shocked her.

ABDURAHMAN: In fact, we have seen differences. The roads are very bad. The schools were not even well-built.

WARNER: Crumbling roads and schools she could've predicted because of the war. The Somali school curriculum spoke to a deeper dysfunction. One lesson would be in Arabic. The next lesson would be in English. It was all mixed up, she says, and it unsettled her. What kind of person would she be if she'd grown up there instead of here in the camp?

BEN RAWLENCE: That's probably the most interesting thing about Dadaab, is that the refugee camp has had a kind of liberalizing influence.

WARNER: Ben Rawlence has spent the last three years writing a book about Dadaab, especially about the earliest arrivals who've lived most of their lives in the camps.

RAWLENCE: They are a ready-made middle class - educated Somalis ready and waiting to move into Somalia to rebuild the country.

WARNER: Abshira Hassan would seem to be the perfect example of that educated class; though, Kenyan law forbids refugees from working. In the meantime, the 26-year-old has pursued almost every certificate course and job training that a refugee in the camp can apply for.

ABSHIRA HASSAN: Like leadership training, conflict prevention, community development. There are a lot I can't recall that I have done.

WARNER: But her 24 years in this camp has also cost her family any claim on land that they once owned in a country that she's never known. Her unlikely fantasy is that one day the camp gates will open and she'll be granted a Kenyan passport.

HASSAN: That's nice that they are consider us Kenyan citizens.

WARNER: A phrase that you always hear in the camp is that they'll return to Somalia when it's peaceful. But that can mean different things. For Abdurahman, it means a decent school for her kids. For Hassan, it's a chance to finally leave job training for a job. For Hussein Farah, a former science teacher who was elected a camp chairman, a peaceful Somalia is one safe enough to hold a general presidential election.

HUSSEIN FARAH: Yeah, I was elected by one man, one vote in the camp.

WARNER: So you basically want Somalia to look more like Dadaab?

FARAH: Yes.

WARNER: He's willing to apply the skills he's learned in the camp to rebuild his country just as soon as his country starts to look more like his camp. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Dadaab. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.