The 5 People You Meet In A Refugee Camp

Lane Hartill

Lane Hartill, Director of Media and Communications

Dadaab Refugee Camp, Kenya

August 23, 2011 


After a week in Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp, I realized something:  Aid workers work day and night.

I’d wander over to the office at night and someone would be leaning into their computer, face aglow.  There’s not a lot to do here in during down time. I asked a colleague what she did to unwind. “I listen to loud music,” she said flatly. Some retreat to quiet corners and Skype with family members far away. Others run around the perimeter of the United Nations compound, calves burning as they churn through the soft sand.

What did I do? I stretched out in my tent and made lists. I have one in front of me now. It’s all the people I met in Dadaab.

I’d  like you to meet five of them. Their stories are the jaw droppers you hear in the camp. But their spirit, drive and kindness are the qualities that you see in the camp but rarely read about.

  1. Hussein has resilience. I met the 13 year old Somali boy sitting outside of the Save the Children office. He’d recently arrived in the camp and was living with a sister. He tried out his limited English with me, then we fell into a conversation about airplanes based solely on sign language. It was clear that his sister was having a hard time supporting him. His T-shirt was badly stained and his pants didn’t fit.  He shined shoes in the market, a smart business move given the constant blowing dust and sand. He happily showed me a scar on his leg he got from thugs in Somalia. Despite his tough life, he was all smiles. Save the Children was helping him and he’d just received a new red T-shirt.
  2. Noor has perseverance. He’s the proud owner of the "Praise God" boutique in Ifo market, a spacious zinc shed with piles of tomatoes and onions on display. Not long ago, before he got involved in the Save the Children fresh food voucher project, Noor was struggling. Customers weren’t buying his paltry selection of dry goods. Even he admits, his selection stunk. He’d make around $2 profit on a good day. Not exactly enough money to feed nine children. But now, thanks to Save the Children, he makes $10 a day and customers flock to him for his potatoes, tomatoes and onions. Save the Children’s fresh food voucher projects has changed his life.
  3. Najib has a personality that won’t quit. I met him at the child friendly space in Hagadera. He was clearly the big man on campus despite the fact he didn’t weigh 40 pounds. He had a personality that filled the room and dance moves that would make Justin Timberlake jealous. And not an ounce of stage fright. He belted out Somali tunes, while strutting in front of a crowd of fans (kids sitting on the floor).  And just think: Not long ago, Najib arrived alone in the camp. The child friendly space has brought him out of his shell.  Najib, I could tell, has a bright future.
  4. Rose has patience. She runs Save the Children’s Dadaab operation. She’s makes decisions that affect the lives of thousands of refugees every day. These challenges would send weaker women running for the comforts of the city. But Rose is never crabby or flustered. She’s passing this cool demeanor on to her children. Consider this: Her 4-year-old daughter, who is cared for by a relative while Rose is in Dadaab, saw hungry Kenyans on TV and refused food. She had enough food, she declared, and wanted to give it to those in need. Rose convinced her people in need were being helped, that she needed to eat. She relented. One thing is clear: she has her mom’s heart.
  5. Ibrahim has heart. Ibrahim Adan, 48, is a wiry man who favors T-shirts and sarongs, the typical outfit for many Somali men. He grew up in Somalia and used to raise camels, goats and cattle. But the conflict drove him to Kenya in the early 1990s. He now sells chickens in the market in Dadaab.  But sit with Ibrahim for a while and you realize his real skill is parenting. And multitasking. One child swings in his sarong like a hammock, while Ibrahim disciplines another outside and answers questions from a guest. He’s been a foster parent for Save the Children for the last few years. He has five children of his own and four foster children.  Why does he foster kids?  Growing up in Somalia his parents were foster parents to 12 children. “Now I’m on the same path,” Ibrahim told me. “Whether you are a Christian or a Muslim,” he told me, “When you see someone suffering, you need to step in and help.”

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