Not long ago, the Tokyo Olympics came to a successful conclusion. Some of them, though not obvious at first glance, attracted a lot of attention -- a delegation of refugees from different countries, speaking different languages but sharing the same aspirations. The Refugee team had 29 athletes competing in 12 events. They have emerged from difficult training conditions and fought their way to the Olympic Games with the same persistence and Olympic spirit as anyone else. Anjelina Nadai Lohalith followed her dream with the hopes of her family in Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, where she calls home since 2002. According to an interview with CCTV, Rose Nassink, a women's 800m athlete, has to leave the house at 6 am for training. She came to Kenya at the age of eight to escape from the war in Sudan and has been living in the Kakuma Refugee camp ever since. Her running talent was discovered at a school race and after years of training she got the chance to compete on the world stage. Although most refugees are facing many difficult challenges, more and more people begin to pay attention to to this unique yet complex group.
Kakuma Refugee Camp
Kakuma refugee camp is one of the biggest refugee camps in Africa, locates in the arid desert of northwestern Kenya. According to UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) Kenya, the Kakuma refugee camp supports approximately 196,000 refugees from neighboring countries, including South Sudan, Ethiopia, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Somalia. Originally established in 1992, the Kakuma refugee camp has provided shelter for people fleeing from threats such as political unrest, wars, and persecutions towards gender minorities back home for decades. Sharing the same system with the local host community, Kakuma provided the refugees services such as water supply and healthcare services. Besides, they receive a wide variety of education and livelihood development resources from NGOs, UN agencies, and government bodies. However, challenges remain over the past decades.
The location of Kakuma refugee camp
Challenges Facing the Women and Teenagers
The traditional gender role of women has limited their human development in many societies for centuries, and that is still a challenge in Kakuma refugee camp nowadays. They have been under the influence of anthropocentrism and patriarchy, conformed to play the role of good wives, doing unpaid domestic work and having little decision-making power in the household. Through livelihoods projects by different NGOs, women have been able to make a living through small businesses such as selling handicrafts. This positive economic change, however, has introduced intrahousehold tensions. Mr. Jacob Nyarwati, Head of Programs of Action Africa Help International (AAH-I), an African NGO that works with the refugee women in Kakuma, mentioned that most conflicts that his team helped to resolve were families’ conflicts caused by men’s opposition to their wives going out to work, as it is against the conventional gender roles. As women become capable of supporting their families financially, some of their husbands feel threatened. Such stereotypes and disagreements among families further create obstacles to women's self-development and limit their opportunities. “So yes, some of them gave up their chances,” said Mr. Mika Mitoko, Livelihoods Coordinator of AAH-I.
The language barrier is another challenge for refugee children and women. The local education system is predominantly in English, while the refugees in the camp speak at least six different languages as their mother tongues. Due to limited proficiency in English and other teaching languages, many refugee students cannot understand the course content well and lead to poor learning outcomes. What’s more, in order to run a small business, they must have basic knowledge and language skills to communicate with the customers from the host communities and refugees from other backgrounds. This has also limited their income-generating activities.
Meanwhile, the funding is also limited compared to the magnitude of the needs for adult training and child education. “You know when you are training people to do these things, we need to devote a lot of money,” said Mr. Nyarwati, “but what we provide is far less than needed.” Many teachers expressed their concerns for unsatisfactory learning space - many schools are unable to provide enough books, pencils and benches for the students, and the classrooms are usually small and crowded. More importantly, the lack of education resourcing has impacted the number of teachers and their teaching quality.
For those who are trying to sell goods – one of the few income-generating activities, market access has been a significant challenge. Due to the remote location and underdeveloped infrastructure such as roads, small business owners from the Kakuma refugee camp have few target markets to consider. Local markets and stores are not big enough. To reach bigger markets in Kitale, Nairobi, and Lodwar, they would have to travel at least 900 to 1000 kilometers on a motorbike, with high time costs and increased road safety risks. The government restrictions have made this even less feasible: “refugees are not allowed to move in or out from the refugee camp without the refugee pass,” Mr. Nyarwati mentioned in our conversation. This has been a bottleneck problem facing many NGOs that run livelihoods programs in the camp.
Efforts to Make a Difference
The NGOs that work in Kakuma see the challenges and have been trying to address them in different ways. Action Africa Help International, founded in 1996, is an African-led regional NGO that aims to support refugee communities facing livelihood challenges in Eastern and Southern Africa. This organization provides practical life skill lessons, such as basic computer skills and tailoring skills, which the vulnerable could make living on their own. The ICT (Information and Communication Technologies) skills training for teenagers, for example, has been a big success. With the skills, the refugee teenagers are able to work online and some of them make more than 900 US dollars per month, not only to support themselves but also to boost their self-efficacy. Up until 2018, AAH-I’s basic life skill training programs have supported 1065 refugees in enterprise development.
Furthermore, AAH-I focuses on improving women’s lives by equipping them with livelihood skills and creating market linkages. Online selling platforms such as Made51, fumbua.africa, bawa Hope are either already operating or going to be launched soon. With the livelihood skills and business experience, some refugees could go back to their own countries with confidence and some financial cushion, which could support them to live better lives. Besides adult education, AAHI also provides diverse courses for teenage girls such as tailor class and art class. Zawadi Luanje, a 15-year-old Congolese girl, had to flee her country to Kenya because of the civil war. She continued her education at Kakuma Primary School, but had no way to pursue her dream of becoming a fashion designer because of limited course options. In January 2021, a Tailoring and Fashion Design course offered by AAH-I reignited her passion and enabled her to invest in her dream.
Refugees inKenya fashion their entrepreneurial skills
For the future development of AAH-I, Mr. Nyarwati mentioned several priorities. For staff development, he stressed the importance of training the staff to treat the refugees with dignity and empathy they deserve. He mentioned what surprised him when he first entered the refugee world is how quickly they can learn without previous formal education, and how much they appreciate life despite the tough living conditions. The other priority is continued business development. With the pandemic, there have been shifts in donors’ areas of interest and the award amounts. While it really depends on the donor, there has been a general decrease of funding, according to Mr. Mitoko, adding to the existing budget constraints.
There are many obstacles that the refugees in Kakuma have faced for the past decades, and will need to continue to tackle. However, nothing beats the hope for a better future. When asked about his personal opinion, Mr. Nyarwati told us, “To me, education is a game changer. I have been to the refugee schools and witnessed the students move from the camp to the outside world with excellent grades and scholarships. I have seen women who received training and are now self-sustained and resilient. Education transforms lives.”