Refugee Life at an Angle
Volume 1, Issue 4-5 / March-April 2009
An editorial on the life perspective of refugees toward their existence in the camp
Kakuma refugee camp hosts about 50,000 refugees who are fully dependent on humanitarian aid. This aid from humanitarian agencies is not sufficient to fulfill refugees’ needs.
Life is very challenging and difficult to survive. Everyone searches for any means with which to supplement their rations from the aid organizations.
The majority of Kakuma’s population is surviving only on the assistance of humanitarian aid, while relatively few are employed by agencies as incentive workers. Even so, those who work as incentive staff are paid very little, and wages are not equivalent to the work performed. Nonetheless, these meager wages prove critical in supplementing their family’s existence. The rest of the camp population continues to look for alternative means to satisfy their family’s needs. Some attempt to establish small-scale business or other services in the camp.
In addition to differences in nationality and culture, there is a considerable difference among refugees themselves in terms of educational background and lifestyle in the camp. Such lifestyle differences include the degree of challenge and living standards, accompanied by insecurity and social problems faced in the camp.
In reality, there are significant economic differences among the refugee camp population. The majority of refugees hardly eat two meals a day—a meager rationing system which nonetheless lasts only 10-13 days of the 15-day cycle allocated by World Food Programme. In such circumstances, refugees do not even think about the possibility of buying a cold drink.
But those who manage their own business or other means of self-reliance are at least able to meet their daily needs. Some refugees also receive remittances from friends or relatives living abroad. For refugees whose small income brings a margin of independence from the aid system, food is no longer a major question of survival. Some refugees can even afford to send their children to private schools or seek treatment in private medical institutions. But this represents a small portion of the population.
Consequently, different persons in Kakuma have different opinions toward life and its interpretation depending on their experiences.
“Life has no value”
In some quarters, KANERE spoke to refugees who are confused about their life situation and do not know exactly how to express their feelings.
Degu*, an Ethiopian and father of three, shared his feelings and perceptions of refugee life. “I don’t have any meaning to life. Everything is mixed up to me. Imagine, I say I am better off than many refugees because I am working in one of the NGOs getting 3,000 Ksh (about $50) per month, which is very little that I can’t take anywhere. It’s very difficult to plan for my family needs with it. But I can see very many refugees don’t even have that chance, do not have work anywhere. You can imagine how the life can treat them badly. A family needs clothes, milk sugar, and many other things—none of which is covered under humanitarian aid.”
When asked about the confidence a refugee can have to live his own life, Degu says, “There is no confidence in the refugee life, especially in decision-making. Everything depends on UNHCR. A person is not given any right to do by his own—even to plan ahead is impossible. Someone plans something else for his career development, while failing to fill his and his family’s stomachs.”
“Any decision made might harm other people.” He refers to life decisions such as moving from place to place to look for better opportunities, or deciding to repatriate while the spouse remains in the camp. Such decisions may harm the remaining family.
“In general,” Degu concludes, “To me life in the refugee contest is like sitting on exams without going to school or without being lectured.”
He explains how he perceives the relationship of refugees to humanitarian agencies and to freedom. “UNHCR without refugees is like a mirror without eyes—impossible. But refugees without UNHCR is possible, if they are given freedom. Refugees have potential to do things. But it’s not tested. It is like a torch without dry cells. It’s impossible to test the bulb with no dry cells [batteries]. If refugees are not given a chance and freedom, they cannot know their capacity and the value of life.”
Another refugee from the Sudanese community who is working as an NGO incentive staff says, “Happiness is what it’s all about in life: the common goal in life to everyone is happiness. But the problems wipe it all away. Religious people are happy in serving their god, businessmen are happy when making profit, parents in raising their children in an ethical manner. Refugees are also part of the world, we need all these things. We need the development of our career. I am single, I haven’t married, I finished my school in Uganda.”
He reflects on his bad feelings about life, saying that he failed to further his studies and has seen no progress on his small-scale business selling sweets on the roadside. He concludes, “A meaningful life is reaching to a certain achievement. All human beings are capable of growth, but refugees could not meet this fact of development.”
“Life has value”
While some Kakuma refugees believe that life is valueless based on their experience, still some argue that human beings have an intrinsic value. These refugees reckon that improving or maintaining life is dependent on individual contributions to their own planned achievements.
“It’s how you make it; it depends on the way you handle it,” says Daniel*, a Ugandan refugee and father of five. “Your life may be bad or good based on your environment. Still it’s possible to make bad to good. Here patience is very important—it may be gradual change.”
He believes that difficulties in life are everywhere, not only in Kakuma. “Some people think that problems are only here, but that is wrong. Problems are everywhere, but the important thing is to work hard to find a solution for it.”
“Life is a struggle to survive. You need to have aim and hope to live. No matter where you are, as long as you have strong ambition or aim, there is no way that you will not succeed in life.”
He advises that, “The main thing is to be yourself. Depression and lack of success are the result of not knowing ourselves and not accepting the way we are. We need to give a value to life, even if we are in the refugee camp, and work for it.”
He concludes by emphasizing the value of life, and expounds on this belief through an interesting philosophy of human existence. “Naturally, life has a value and we need to respect that and preserve the worthiness. Life is a circular motion, which rotates on its own axis with every individual. Through it, there’s happiness, sadness, love, peace, conflict, and many good and bad fortunes. One can have one day of life and die, others may have hundreds of years of age, but still they make a full circle. The difference is only the size of the radius. The longer you stay, the bigger the radius you have. In general, a long stay has a big life circle.”
Assefa,* an elder of the Ethiopian Oromo community and father to five, also believes that refugee life has value. He has lived in the camp for 18 years and was a refugee in Somalia before coming to Kenya. “In the refugee life, you need to have at least one: you need to have knowledge; if you can’t acquire that you need to make money; if that is also impossible you need to have children.” Regarding his own case, he says, “I have not gone to school and did not make money, but I am blessed with children and happy for that. So people can make any kind of success in life, whether in the camp or not. But it needs strong, hard work.”
In conclusion, refugees in Kakuma are very strong and have good vision. But it will fulfill the refugees’ potential in life if they are given freedom and chance to do things on their own. However difficult existence may be in a refugee camp, few refugees hold negative attitudes to life due to their current experiences and past. Still, refugees need more support and counseling in order to develop positive thinking so that they can realize their own lives more positively.
*Not their real names.