Prior to visiting the Kakuma refugee camp as part of a United Nations Foundation envoy to distribute anti-malaria mosquito nets, I would have answered the question, “What is a refugee?” differently than I do today.
At the time, I would have said a refugee is displaced, homeless, in need of help and fleeing conflict. All those descriptions are true, but I wouldn’t have been able to answer the deeper elements of that question until I met the faces behind the statistics that we read about in the news on a daily basis.
Now, to me, a refugee means something different:
n A parent — someone who loves their children as much as I love mine, and who wishes for them a future that’s no less bright than my wife and I dream about for our children.
I met a man who asked me to take a picture of his 2-year-old daughter. I took the photo, showed him, and as I began to step away, he took my arm, looked me in the eyes and said, “Thank you. Now people far from here will remember that my daughter matters … that she is alive, and that she is important.”
n A patriot — by definition, someone who loves their own country. We met countless people who longed for the day to return to Somalia, Sudan, the Congo, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Uganda, Rwanda or a host of other African nations, eager to continue with their lives in the places they call home. Many of these were doctors, lawyers or other highly educated individuals whose success resulted in their persecution by those seeking absolute power and authority.
We met a former university professor from Mogadishu who had lived in the camp for 10 years (having fled after witnessing the murder of his family by rebels). When we asked why he’d chosen to stay in the camp rather than seek asylum somewhere else, he said, “Because I don’t want to go to America. Or Europe. Or anywhere but Somalia. That is my home. And I will wait for the day when the fighting ends, and I can return to my life.”
n A people filled with unexpected joy — an almost universal happiness to be alive. In an environment where most have lost family, all have lost home, and a single bite from a mosquito can cause death, each day of life with health is a reward that doesn’t go unnoticed.
n A people filled with a deep despair; the UNHCR (the U.N. organization charged with managing the camp, and providing shelter and security to its more than 90,000 residents) has a little more than $100 per year (yes, per year) to support each man, woman and child at Kakuma. The World Food Programme provides nourishment for these residents, but they face desperate challenges. Suffice to say, resources are stretched to the breaking point, and the life-and-death struggle for the basic human sustenance is very, very real.
We met a young man named Jerome during a tour of a vocational program in the camp. He asked my wife a question that painted the most vivid picture of the despair a refugee faces every day. A question that caused us all to stop and think. A question I’d like to think would be easy answer, but one we found was anything but:
“Do you think God has forgotten us?”
To support the United Nations Foundation’s Nothing But Nets campaign, go to: www.nothingbutnets.net