When the news came that the Kenyan government was planning to close down its refugee camps, I was overcome with a sense of dread and helplessness. I felt helpless because there was nothing I could do to stop the government from closing the camps. I felt dread because I share a bond with the majority of refugees in Kenya; the Somali origin. I share the same language, culture, religion and heritage with these people. The only difference being we were born in different sides of the border. If I wasn’t born on this side of the divide, I would probably be among them.
I hate politics, I think it stinks. I think it is sad to watch as the fate of more than half a million refugees was left hanging in the balance at the whim of politics. 600K refugees. We love statistics don’t we? We’ve boasted about it in diplomatic circles, over a cup of tea, in New York or Zurich. We made a great show of welcoming refugees at high-profile photo ops in distant airports. That we are the country that hosts the world’s largest refugee camp. We bagged billions of euros and dollars because of it.
The thing is I don’t know how it feels like to live in a refugee camp or what it feels like to be a refugee; to be unrecognized, hungry, desolate and living off foreign aid. Or how it feels like to be born in a shanty town sprawled on the semiarid, just afew hours from the country where you were supposed to be born in, and to spend your days trapped within a confined area, without access to currency, toilets or employment. I have no idea what it feels to be homeless and reduced to a number, a statistic. To line up every other week in the hot sun to just to get a cup of corn and a spoonful of salt. Or how it must feel like not to work, or leave the camp. I have no clue what it means to be a prisoner here, an alien. To be honest I don’t. We all don’t.
I know, it sounds like fiction, but I’ve seen it. I’ve been to Dadaab a few times, for job interviews at the UN. It’s one of those places that make you feel angry at the world and make you realize it is a despicable place. You go in there with your beliefs about universal human rights, the equality of all men, humanity and dignity but you’ll come out cynical about every little thing you believe in. You’ll come out knowing very well that all of that is mere constitutional mumbo jumbo we use to make ourselves sleep at night. You’ll be convinced that we are all still the primitive beasts we were when we first climbed down from acacia boughs millions of years ago, if at all evolution is to be believed.
This is because it is a groaning, filthy, disease-riddled slum heaving with traumatized people with not enough to eat. It’s a ramshackle city in the desert, full to the brim with Somali refugees, NGOs, cops, travelers and traders. Dadaab is the real world. It’s where the word “nation” is fantasy, while the term “citizen” has faded into meaningless.
I remember a lot of things from my visits here. I remember the dusty roads and the congested make shift homes. I remember the white canvass tents with the blue UNHCR logo that dabbled as houses. I remember the sun burnt white UN types canvassing the camp in shiny Land Cruisers. I remember the spiny low lying acacia bushes and the houses made of sticks and thorns.
But the most enduring memory that I have of this place is this image of long lines of young girls with these big, yellow jerry cans waiting to fill them up at the taps. I found it heartbreaking to watch these little girls fighting for water. They looked a little older for their age because of the kind of lives they live. I was standing under the shade of a tree across from the girls were as I waited for a friend. It was really hot and dusty.
There was one particular girl that stood out from the group. She was bubbly and playful for a kid who is stuck in a refugee camp. The rest of the girls were pretty low key and covered their mouths with their gambis. Their mothers must have instilled the ways of our cultures in them. Girls, even little ones, should act shy and reserved in public. But this particular one, they called her Astur, seemed like trouble and generally full of life. Her name struck me as well, it means to conceal, or to cover or to keep something pure. It’s unique, cultural, powerful and poetic. She had wide eyes and this sweet innocent demeanor that all little girls have that is just inexplicably powerful. You know that look that could make you do anything for them? I remember thinking that little girls like her should not grow up in places like Dadaab.
Astur probably didn’t know she was refugee, or what it means to be one. Her father probably escaped the war in Somalia or the famine later on and found his way into Kenya through the border. He probably lost his parents and siblings in the war and was at some point conscripted in to a militia as a soldier by a warlord but escaped at some point, travelling hundreds of miles to seek refuge in Dadaab. He probably had to wait for several weeks before he could get the necessary papers to be recognized as a refugee. He also had to wait a bit longer to start getting rations of food distributed by WFP that would be coming two weeks apart. Long queues at warehouses. Several cups of rice and maize. A cup of oil. A bit of salt. A stamped card to show he’d received his share.
He probably traded some of his ration for sugar or tea leaves because currency is rare to come by. Refugees are not allowed to work. He couldn’t leave the camp either. At some point he probably started doing casual work. Blacksmith. Potter. He has lived in his mind, a life of reminiscing about good old days back in Somalia. He knows its been a long time since 16, before all hell broke lose, since he played football on the white beaches of Muqdisho with friends he’s never seen since. But outside his mind, he doesn’t live;he exists. He probably chewed miraa every day, sacrificing his ration of food to buy it. Hunger is the price.
At some point he found a girl and went for it. One that has haunting eyes that reveal traces of rape and feet that speak of distant lands. One that has hands that have touched fire. A warlike beauty queen with more scars than him. He was probably given a hard time by her family, may be because he was from the wrong tribe. The clan mafia system locked him out. But he loved her. He probably eloped with her. Somewhere not very far. Probably a price was put on his head. He secretly wed her and a baby was soon on the way. When she was born they aptly named her Astur. The concealed. The one kept in purity. The family let them back in the camp because of the child. She saved them.
Astur probably doesn’t know what her parents have gone through. She doesn’t know there’s a world outside this camp where little girls her age are chauffeured to school where they spend all day learning stuff and playing with their friends. She doesn’t know there’s a world out there where little girls don’t spend their days fetching water barefooted. Where little girls are tucked in at night and fairy tales read to them as they fall asleep. Where they can go on trips to Paris. This is her life. This is all she knows. There’s bliss in ignorance, in being a child.
She also doesn’t know that her life might be changing soon for worse than it already is. She doesn’t know the political and legal rhetoric that is going to leave her homeless, if at all that is a home. She is not aware that Dadaab’s Godzilla is the bureaucrat or politician, who can make it disappear into thin air with the stroke of a pen or a conference call. She doesn’t know about the principle of non-refoulment and voluntary repatriation and international obligations and national security. She doesn’t know Al Shabaab either. All she knows is how to line up to fetch water from the taps for her family to use. She knows is to take care of their “house” because her parents have to go find something to feed her and clothe her.
I couldn’t help but think of her sweet innocent face and wonder what will happen to her and her friends if the camp is closed. They will be forced to go back across hundreds of miles of harsh terrain to find an unstable country. Will she be able to survive the journey? She might lose her parents in the ordeal. She might skip right from childhood to middle age. She might become another messed up graceful warlike angel, like her mother and conceal scars and stories beneath her eyes. She might fall in the path of a senseless brute who might tear her to pieces and leave her a broken shell. Or she might be dodging Al-Shabaab back home, or try to get to the promised land of America with her sanity intact. Or she might stop a stray bullet and breathe her last. She might be happy she did, and wash up lying face down in the sand of the Indian Ocean, and the un-erasable image, will travel worldwide appended to a hashtag, #HumanityWashedAshore, like the three-year-old Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi.
Or she might survive the journey and find a home there, in a part far away from the guns and conflict, with nice green fields or a white beach. She might finally feel at home and find a boy and make a little girl of her own. Or she might decide not to bring an innocent child into this wretched world. But right now she’s still a little girl probably fetching water for her mother. Her fate is in the hands of a few individuals she doesn’t even know. She’s a mere pawn in the game of politics.
The government has not been nice to her. She’s never been welcome, and her fate depends on how the geopolitical ship happens to sail. She can be wiped from existence or used as a scapegoat for any crimes carried out in Kenyan soil. She is a charity case and a monster in waiting. She has to remain unrecognized as a human, that’s the status quo. Because to recognize her as such would mean that she has rights. It would mean that the condition she lives in would be a crime, and that would of course be too traumatic for the Kenyan state.
Hers is an existential issue, a humanity issue. Is she less human than the rest of us? There are so many reasons why the government should not close down the camps, so many legal arguments to this, but this little girl is more than enough reason not to close them down. We’ve not been nice to her and others of the same status but she doesn’t expect much, and doesn’t complain. She simply doesn’t want to go to a place that is worse than Dadaab. She also doesn’t strike me as a threat to anyone.
We take a lot of things for granted. We take homes and life and peace for granted. We feel entitled to have these things. And we think that life is hard because it can’t stop raining and traffic is a mess. We think it’s unbearable because the wifi is slow and we can’t watch stream the latest Game of Thrones in real time, or because the boss is an ass.
In the process, we forget that we live in a world that constantly sinks further and further into unimaginable violence. What it means to be at home as a human could change in an instant. Everything we have could change at the stroke of a pen, and we could find ourselves in a situation where “home” will not mean the same thing it does now. We could all be inhabitants of Dadaab. We could all become Astur, we could all become a refugee.