'It Is Better To Work for Yourself Than Sit and Wait for Aid'.

Author:Keenan, Jillian
Position:Somali refugees in Kenya


THE DUSTY STREETS and patchwork buildings of Ifo, one of the camps that make up Dadaab Refugee Complex in eastern Kenya, don't seem like much of a home. But for Abdullahi Ahmed, now 62, Ifo has long been a home worth fighting for.

Ahmed arrived in Ifo back in 1991, when he fled the civil war in Somalia. His journey to the refugee camp was unspeakable: At one point, he had to leave his dying son under a tree and just keep walking. It's the kind of calculus from which a father never recovers, but Ahmed had to make it: His wife and other children were counting on him to lead them to safety, and Ahmed, himself emaciated and weak, couldn't carry the dying boy anymore.

In Ifo, he started building a new life. A loan from a fellow refugee turned into a vegetable stall, and that vegetable stall turned into a restaurant. It wasn't much, but it was better than nothing.

Today, Ahmed watches over Ifo like a friendly patriarch: His restaurant has become a community center of sorts, where fellow refugees inhale plates of rice and meat between colorful painted walls. Ifo feels settled, fixed in the landscape. But it wasn't always that way.

In 2006, representatives from the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) called Ahmed and other community leaders to a meeting. For years, seasonal rains had caused flash floods, terrorizing Ifo's residents. The floods washed away homes, dismantled toilets, and ruined much-needed food and other supplies. On the advice of an engineer from Nairobi, the agency had decided to dismantle the entire settlement and relocate its residents.

Ahmed was aghast. Over the previous decade and a half, Ifo's residents had turned a desperate refugee camp into a city. Children had been born and raised there; small businesses had flourished; temporary huts made of sticks and repurposed tin cans had been refurbished into long-term homes. A second displacement would devastate this already-traumatized community.

Ahmed had lost one home due to war. He wasn't about to leave another one just because some bureaucrats told him he had to.

"I thought, 'This engineer from Nairobi is bogus,'" recalls Ahmed, who smiles broadly from behind a wiry scrub-brush beard. So he spoke up. Ahmed told the agency that the engineer they had hired was wrong. There was a better and cheaper alternative to relocation: a levee to redirect the floodwaters away from Ifo's families. In the months that followed, the UNHCR took Ahmed's advice and built the levee. The camp stayed put; the floods stopped. Ahmed was never paid a consultation fee, but he was right.

Of course he was right. Before the war, he had been one of Somalia's most respected civil engineers.

WE ARE IN the midst of the world's worst refugee crisis since World War II. According to the UNHCR, the earth currently contains 68.5 million forcibly displaced people. To put that in context, the population of the United Kingdom is 66 million. There are more refugees in the world right now than Brits.

More than 870,000 Somali refugees are in the Horn of Africa and Yemen alone, while another 2.1 million Somalis are internally displaced. Dadaab, the world's third-largest refugee complex, hosts the highest percentage of refugees from Somalia.

First established in 1991, Dadaab has grown over the decades to become a city of 209,000 people. The majority are Somali, but refugees from Ethiopia, South Sudan, and Congo can be found there as well. Life in the camps is grim: Hundreds of thousands of traumatized people, half-starving on too-small rations, live in conditions that Oxfam calls "barely fit for humans." (Dadaab is eerily well-named: The word means "a rocky hard place.")

Taking care of all these people comes with a hefty price tag that no one wants to pay. According to a report from the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a nongovernmental organization (NGO), proper care in 2018 would have cost an estimated $191.1 million...

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