In the town of Turkana, northwestern Kenya lies the Kakuma refugee camp. The camp was established in 1992, following the arrival of the “Lost Boys of Sudan”. During that year, large groups of Ethiopian refugees fled their country following the fall of the Ethiopian government. Somalia had also experienced high insecurity and civil strife causing people to flee.
Kakuma is home to over 191,000 displaced Africans who, after being moved from their countries of origin due to war and unrest, have begun creating new realities for themselves against many odds.
It is the world’s fourth largest refugee camp with residents from over 20 countries including South Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan, the UN refugee agency UNHCR says. The camp has been in existence for over 25 years.
While their movement is heavily restricted, the men and women of Kakuma have found various means of making a living and learning new skills, from design to farming and trade.
With little prospect of returning home, becoming full-fledged Kenyan citizens or moving to a developed country, the refugees have found various ways to thrive in an ever-changing world – one they hope to be an active part of.
A World Bank study in 2018 titled ‘Kakuma as a Marketplace’ described the refugee camp as a viable market “to harness and strengthen the existing business opportunities for refugees to lead self-determined lives.”
Shukrani Hota Biclere, a Congolese fashion designer who fled the DRC for Kenya in 2010, sells her clothing mostly to fellow refugees as well as to staff from humanitarian agencies in the camp. Biclere says she can make thousands of dollars a month from sales and she uses the money to pay her 10 employees.
The designer is not the only example of a refugee thriving on the camp, among restaurateurs, hoteliers, basket weavers and traders are 23-year-old Ramadhan Hassan and 22-year-old Ramadhan Tia, two vegetable farmers.
They are among the hundreds of refugees at Kukama who have decided to take up farming, digging shallow wells along the riverbeds for irrigation, to make some extra income.
“We sometimes have other needs like books, clothing and many other things, and farming is our only way to get them”, Hassan says. They use the money to buy essentials.
Perhaps one of the most prominent Kakuma stories of recent is that of Somali-American supermodel, Halima Aden. Her family is one of few who were able to settle into a developed country moving to St. Louis, Missouri when she was just 7.
“There were things that were sadly familiar like hearing gunshots at night and the streets looking impoverished,” Aden told a crowd at the first ever Ted Talk held at the refugee camp in June 2018.
Aden’s experience as a model took her on an incredible 360 degrees moment when, while at a photo shoot in New York, she met fellow supermodel Adut Akech, who was also born in Kakuma after her parents left South Sudan. “Two girls, born in the same refugee camp, reunited for the first time on the cover of British Vogue,” she recalls.
“Educating a girl will create an equal and stable society and educating refugees will create hope for rebuilding their countries.”
-Mary Maker, a Sudanese teacher and former refugee at Kakuma who spoke at TEDxKakuma.
The model says people are often surprised to hear her speak of a positive upbringing on the camp, but that she considers it home to this day, “the sense of pride and community here is unparalleled.”
The successful refugees who are now at the global stage say education is central to the recreation of successful stories so that people do not think that all is doom at Kakuma refugee camp.
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