19/06/2012 – It is only a two-hour flight from Nairobi to Lokichogio airport, in the northwestern part of Kenya. We land in the country’s largest district – Turkana, bordered by South Sudan, Uganda and Ethiopia. Getting off the plane, I see a vast stretch of dry land. Immediately I feel that the temperature is much higher than in the capital. Here, the average daytime temperature reaches 40-degrees Celsius. Fortunately, last month it was raining and the landscape is covered with some trees and green, an unusual sight at this time.
Together with other humanitarian workers, we drive to the Kakuma town, home to the most diverse refugee camp in Kenya. In Swahili “Kakuma” means “nowhere” and I feel like I am far away, in an unknown landscape. The camp is situated on the outskirts of the Kakuma town and was established 20 years ago following the arrival of 16,000 Sudanese “Lost Boys” and “Lost Girls”. Together with 200 caretakers for five years, these boys and girls engaged in a hazardous flight from civil war in Sudan.
I met one of the “Lost Boys”. Daniel came from Jonglei State (today South Sudan) to Kakuma in 1992 when he was eight years old. After being orphaned during the war he was recruited as a child soldier to the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). Today, he works as interpreter for the United Nations in the camp, dealing with new arrivals of refugees. I asked him what is his biggest dream: “I want to be a pilot because being next to the sun makes you happier,” he said.
Today, Kakuma accommodates almost 100,000 people of 13 nationalities with 200 new arrivals daily. The biggest groups are Somalis (49%), South Sudanese (31%) and Ethiopians (6%).
The EU’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO) supports protection programmes implemented by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) to reduce discrimination towards minority groups, for example, by providing services and assistance in the health sector in the camp. The EU funding also focuses on providing food through the UN World Food Programme (WFP). In 2012 the European Commission allocated €24 million to help meet the basic needs of refugees in the Horn of Africa, including Kakuma.
The camp’s most important achievement is the peaceful coexistence of 13 nationalities who live within 12 square kilometers. In Kakuma, the refugees have found a way to live together in peace even if in their home country they might fight against each other. I was surprised by the resilience that the refugees built together while in the camp. The camp is a small city with shops where you can buy almost anything you can imagine, go to a hairdresser or go for lunch at an Ethiopian restaurant, which is very popular among humanitarian workers.
For refugees, resilience means they are able to take care of themselves, they are independent and they have their own income – without asking for help. What they need is to be recognized as being part of society. They want to work hard to achieve this goal.
Now I can see how important it is to support their efforts by building resilience and I understand that humanitarian assistance alone is not enough to meet their needs over the long term. After an urgent humanitarian intervention, long-term assistance is necessary to sustain all of the work that has been done to help refugees achieve independence.
The European Commission continues to work hard to link humanitarian aid and development assistance with a view to helping vulnerable populations break the circle of dependence.
During my three days visiting the Kakuma refugee camp I never felt insecure or alienated. On the contrary, I had the feeling that the refugees I met gave me more than I could ever give them. Each of them displayed incredible courage, perseverance and undying hope. Very often I saw smiles on their faces and gratitude that they do not feel alone. They hope for a better future and more support from the international community. All of them are waiting for stabilization in their countries and do not give up their dreams of going back to live where they come from… to go home.
Today, one of this year’s biggest celebrations at Kakuma refugee camp begins – World Refugee Day. All of the camp’s different nationalities are proud to present their culture and to demonstrate the profound sense of community among them. This year’s theme is “One person forced to flee is too many”. I wish I could be there to celebrate with them – but we are there in spirit.
By Anna Chudolińska
ECHO Information and Communication Officer