Dadaab refugee complex usually only makes the headlines in times of crisis. Yet when the cameras stop rolling, the sprawling complex in north-eastern Kenya continues to be home to nearly half a million people, mostly Somali refugees. Unable to leave the camps without travel permits and unable to officially work due to Kenyan employment laws, many residents have become entrepreneurs to survive.
The roads in Dadaab are just bare earth but they teem with women browsing stalls of kale and bananas, girls clad in buibui (the Swahili word for the black shawl Muslim women wear to cover their heads) giggling over a mobile phone and small halls where men watch football, cheering on Arsenal, Manchester United and Real Madrid. Homes are ramshackle, built of wood and cane and covered with plastic sheets, but inside some contain TV sets, with satellite dishes erected outside on the ground.
Hagadera, Ifo and Dagahaley, the three main camps which make up the Dadaab complex, have lively centres with small restaurants, butchers, stalls selling qat (leaves that provide a mild stimulant when chewed), radio and TV repairers and mobile phones shops. Small businesses like these generate $25 million a year according to research commissioned by the Kenyan, Danish and Norwegian governments in 2010.
Horseed Hotel is a simple eatery in Ifo camp selling meat stews and other basic dishes, which employs 11 people. There are a few tables outside as well as an enclosed area, a small kitchen and a booth for the cashier. A mug of tea, a plate of meat stew, a bun and a banana (served with every meal) costs Ksh80 (a little under a dollar). The same would cost twice as much or more in Nairobi. Nevertheless the modest business has transformed the life of more than one family in the camp.
Its owner, Addullahi Ahmed Mohamed, arrived from Somalia on foot in 1991, skinny and exhausted, with his young wife and two young girls, fleeing the civil war that gripped the country and had already claimed the lives of two of his brothers.
“It was a journey I will never forget,” he says. “Along the way we abandoned our son who was weak and on the verge of death. I was tired and could not carry him anymore. We placed him down under a tree and moved on.”
This is not an unusual story to hear in the camps where families have had to make heart-rending sacrifices in order to make a future for the rest of their children.
“I decided to change my life from that of a refugee waiting for rations to a man who can make good out of a bad situation,” says Mohammed. “An inner voice told me to take a new direction and that is why I went into business.”
Like all refugees, Mohammed cannot leave the camp without a permit. He gradually built up the business, initially selling sugar, tea leaves, sweets and toothpaste on foot around the camp – bought with a soft loan of Ksh12,000 ($144) from a fellow refugee – before running a vegetable stall.
“We live and act like human beings elsewhere. Irrespective of what condition we may be in, we are human beings and always need certain basic things,” says Mohamed.
The camps attract business from around Kenya. Huge trucks from Nairobi and Mombasa criss-cross the rugged earth roads bringing supplies to NGOs and businesses. Kenyans, who have the advantage of being able to travel, have been coming to Dadaab since the camp’s inception in the early-1990s to run businesses such as car hire in the area and catering to visiting NGO workers and journalists.
All refugees, no matter how long they have been at Dadaab, receive World Food Programme (WFP) food rations every two weeks of wheat flour, corn soya blend (CSB), yellow peas, salt, sugar and cooking oil, which provide a recommended 2100 calories per day.
Food in Dadaab is a bit cheaper than other parts of Kenya. Staples, such as maize, rice, wheat, sugar and cooking oil, are around 20% cheaper in the camps, according to research by the Danish, Norwegian and Kenyan governments, due to re-sale of WFP rations, access to free food by locals registered as refugees and illegal imports via Somalia.
In total, the food agencies distribute tens of thousands of metric tons of food per month. Any extra supplies, such as fresh vegetables, have to be bought within the camp. Some refugees receive so-called “incentive wages” from aid agencies and NGOs, while others receive money from relatives abroad via Western Union – now straight to their mobile phones – though they are in the minority.
Mohamed also supplies food to international NGOs such as Save the Children when they have seminars or workshops. “From a penniless man 20 years ago, I am now able to supply these institutions,” he says, waving contracts fished out of a green plastic file.
“In 1996, nobody had money here,” he explains. “We were all poor and if anybody had Ksh30,000 ($360) he was treated like a millionaire. Today there are those worth Ksh50 million (around $600,000) or even more in wealth.”
Abdi Aziz Hassan arrived in Dadaab in 2002, fleeing fighting in Somalia. Together with a fellow refugee he runs an improvised shop that sells mobile phone accessories. He also has a thriving M-Pesa business – Kenya’s most popular mobile phone money transfer service – which he runs with a Kenyan business partner. Kenyan laws do not allow refugees to formally engage in business activities, so he would not have been granted a licence alone.
“It is my desire to go back to my country Somalia if peace can prevail,” says Hassan, who is in his forties. “But if I am still in this camp, I have to do something to earn a living for my family.”
David Kangethe, country director of the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) in Kenya, says that insecurity in the camps is now one of the biggest challenges. Attacks by armed Somali groups and sympathisers have prompted some aid agencies to evacuate their international staff and scale back on services. But this is also creating opportunities for refugees.
“Things have turned out to be what they are but we have refugees in Dadaab that cannot be abandoned,” explains Kangethe. “So we looked at how we could do it differently from the way we have done it in the past, such as getting refugees more involved in the day to day running of the camp.”
One area where refugees are taking a more active role is healthcare.
Kaba Muhamed Ade, 60, for example, works as a nurse for Medicines Sans Frontier (MSF). He arrived in Dadaab 19 years ago “with barely the clothes on my back”. “I now use my skills to treat sick people in the camp as well as selling medicine, which has helped me a lot in taking care of my children,” says the father of 24. During the times when international aid workers have been evacuated from the camps he and other refugees have been able to keep clinics and hospitals open.
Refugees are also running water and sanitation services. “There is a network of boreholes that provide water in a piped system to parts of the camp,” Kangethe explains. “Generators have to be fuelled, they have to be started and the pumping equipment has to be maintained.
“Most of what used to be done by humanitarian agencies in terms of day to day running is being transferred to refugees. We do as much as we can with refugees in the camp. Some of them are very skilled.”
In addition, community peace and safety teams as well as community policing groups – created and led by the refugees themselves – have helped reduce violence in the camps. Though not without a price. At the end of last year two community leaders in Hagadera and Ifo camps were killed by al-Shabaab sympathisers because they were perceived to be assisting the police.
One of the biggest frustrations for young refugees is the fact that they can’t travel or work. Many young people were born in the camps and there are very few employment opportunities. The Danish Refugee Council, like many other NGOs working in Dadaab, has a series of projects to build refugees’ skills and self-reliance. There are internet cafes where people can learn computing skills and get online; women have been given donkey carts so they can ferry supplies, charging small amounts for the service; people are trained to make doors and bins from the thousands of metal cooking oil tins that are brought to the camp; in Ifo, women grow vegetables in greenhouses to sell; and bright students are sent to study at university in Nairobi.
“They are better prepared if they are able to move away,” Kangethe says. “And if they go home [to Somalia] there is something they can take with them.” “But overall,” he admits, “it’s like a drop in the ocean.”
This feature was produced by Panos London.
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