The forgotten refugee camp

Livelihood projects supported by the PWRDF allow refugees to sell groceries, raise poultry, set up bakeries, make peanut butter products, and sell crafts, among others. Photo: Contributed
Livelihood projects supported by the PWRDF allow refugees to sell groceries, raise poultry, set up bakeries, make peanut butter products, and sell crafts, among others. Photo: Contributed
Published November 8, 2013

The Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya has fallen off the radar screen of most donor countries but the influx of refugees continues, and the camp is “in crisis,” according to a representative of the National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK).

At the end of September, the camp’s population was 125,803. By the end of October, it had jumped to 126,868, noted Raphael Nyabala, a staff member of the NCCK’s refugee service project and co-ordinator of Kakuma Refugee Camp.

Nyabala is currently in Toronto to attend a meeting of the board of the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund (PWRDF), which is a partner of the NCCK. Prior to the meeting he visited Anglican churches in Vancouver, Winnipeg and Saskatchewan, and gave presentations about the camp situation and the projects jointly sponsored by PWRDF and the NCCK.

When it was first established in 1992 to accommodate south Sudanese refugees fleeing civil war in their country, the camp was built to accommodate 90,000 refugees, said Nyabala. Now, with a population exceeding expectations, “there is a lot of competition for space and for resources,” he said in an interview. “It’s quite a challenge to cope with the numbers.

Kakuma is the second largest refugee camp in Kenya, after Dadaab, which has more than 400,000 refugees. It is located in a semi-arid region about 1,000 km from Nairobi, the capital city of Kenya.

The NCCK and PWRDF work alongside United Nations organizations and church groups, such as the Lutheran World Federation, to provide services to camp refugees who have fled political instabilities in Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Sudan.

For the last 12 years, PWRDF has supported work in the areas of reproductive health, livelihood, counselling, HIV and AIDS awareness, and combating stigma against persons living with HIV.

“The camp situation is not very easy,” said Nyabala. Food rations are provided every two weeks by the World Food Programme and medical services are free, but a gap exists in terms of addressing other personal needs and issues, he said. “The camp is also not able to house 100 per cent of the refugees…About 33 per cent are in a situation where they’re sharing [a home] or living in makeshift dwellings” that do not protect them from the elements.

The services provided by outside agencies such as PWRDF and NCCK may not amount to millions of dollars, but they go a long way in supplementing the needs of refugees, said Nyabala. Livelihood projects allow them to sell groceries, raise poultry, set up bakeries, make peanut butter products, and sell crafts, among others. [Services also extend to members of the host community, who often live in “desperate” situations because the development in the area is very low and they receive little support from the government, said Nyabala. Because of its climate, Kakuma can barely produce crops; members of its community are nomadic pastoralists who rely on their herd and occasional food relief from their government.]

While some refugees are able to leave when the situation back home improves or when they are resettled to another country, others have remained in the camp for 20 years, said Nyabala. The inability to return home or be provided a path to naturalization in their host country, or to be resettled, often gives rise to “high levels of trauma and depression,” he said.

But, he added, there’s also a lot of resilience among refugees and often, when they are resettled, “they can do amazing things.”

Resettlement is still “a durable solution” to the refugee crisis, said Nyabala, as he urged Canadian Anglicans to lobby their government to increase the number of refugee sponsorships to Canada. “Given the opportunity of a good home and safety, they [refugees] can be productive and add value to this nation. [Increasing] the level of support to refugees will go a long way in giving people a new lease on life.”

Prayers for “the uprooted people around the world” and for conflict-ridden nations “so they can embrace dialogue” are equally important, he added.

Nyabala knows what it’s like to walk in a refugee’s shoes-he became an internally displaced person (IDP) following post-election violence in Kenya. He was an IDP for only a week, but “sleeping on the open ground gave me a firsthand experience of what it feels to be a refugee,” said Nyabala. “I experienced frustration and depression. I couldn’t do what I desired for my family.”

That experience gave him the impetus to work on behalf of refugees. It hasn’t come without sacrifice for him and his family: for the last 10 years he has followed a pattern of working eight weeks straight, then driving 12 hours to see his family and spend time with them for a week.

Why does he do it? “It’s for humanity…My joy is to see somebody [experience] a difference in their lives. They might be in a situation where they can’t help themselves and when I offer my support, they can have some dignity,” he said. “I think that’s what being a human being ought to be…You can’t take on the world, but you can do something.”


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