The day went by largely unnoticed, without a bang— no social media hashtags, no fuming journalists covering it—but it had the chance to change the lives of the nearly half a million refugees in Kenya, and in turn the country.
The president declined a bill which, at the stroke of his pen, would have allowed any refugee in Kenya to apply for citizenship, if they wish, and enjoy all the rights that come with it. The bill, first tabled by the MP Agostinho Neto, granted refugee professionals work, families land, and children education, but our president turned it down anyway. Currently, a refugee, whether just given sanctuary or born here, must remain in one of the designated camps—Dadaab or Kakuma—and they are exempted from work. The bill provided for change, but Kenya was not ready. Why? You wonder.
Every evening, beside an apartment in Eastleigh, a few chairs are arranged in circle with a table in the middle, and each of the men who come there that evening takes his place and orders for tea, which is served almost instantly. Only Ahmed’s cup without milk. Ibrahim, Abdi, and Ahmed come here regularly, and Sacdiyo, who runs the place, has since learned their names and a bit of their background. They always sit together, and if one of them is late, he must be called before the conversation begins. Their discussion runs uncharted and touches on many subjects —from science to politics to religion—but returns again and again to one place: Dadaab. This is perhaps what keeps them together. They are all from Dadaab. They are all refugees. Somehow, they have all managed to escape the camp and they now reside in Nairobi. They have something else in common, too. They all want to go away, out of Kenya to another country, a place where, as Ibrahim puts, “I can do something with myself.” When they cannot meet, they chat online.
Ahmed was the first of the men to come to Nairobi in 2012, immediately after high school. He quickly found a job at a restaurant, which allowed him to support his family back home. He is the firstborn in his family, and the first to escape the refugee camp, so he was painfully aware of his responsibility and he worked hard.
“I put in all the effort,” he remembers, “Really, I was lucky to find a job. Unlike now, they did not ask for my ID then; I was only asked if I would work hard, and I promised to.”
Ahmed returns to Dadaab intermittently to visit family, and it’s always difficult, because you have to produce your Kenyan ID while returning, or you are detained and denied entry.
“This is the worst thing about being a refugee, you know,” Ahmed says, visibly angry. “You do not have papers. Even your employer pays you less than the others once he finds out you are a refugee.”
Ahmed waited tables for the first two years, and in 2014, he was promoted to write the bills. That year, he got married, in Dadaab of course, and his wife was resettled in the United States later in the year.
“She was already done with most of the process when we married, so I couldn’t join,” he explains. Their first child was born in the United States, and his wife has returned to visit three times since.
“Notice,” he says, gesticulating frantically, “She is already free, though she has been away for only three years. I came to Kenya when I was six and I cannot even visit my family back in Dadaab without getting arrested.”
This is a feeling the other men share. They say they are handicapped; they say they feel alienated. Kenya has done this very successfully; she has accommodated the refugees, but managed to keep a wedge between them and the rest of the country, even if they really want to belong.
“Why would I not want to join my wife?” Ahmed asks, “I can already tell it’s better there.”
Ibrahim completely high school in Dadaab in 2011, and he worked with the Norwegian Refugee Council for a while before finally moving to Nairobi in 2014. Both his parents died, his mother during his birth and his father when he was 5, and he was then adopted by his grandmother, who also passed away shortly thereafter, and he was again adopted by his uncle, with whom he stayed until 2010, when the family was resettled in the United States, just before Ibrahim finished school.
“The first ten years of my life were like a marathon of bad luck,” Ibrahim says, sipping the tea, “Thank God I do not remember most of it. I only remember my uncle’s family, and I am glad they stayed until I was old enough to be on my own.”
Ibrahim, very soft spoken, says his uncle sent him to Nairobi for studies. In 2015, sponsored by his uncle, Ibrahim enrolled at the University of Nairobi for International Relations, but he dropped out earlier this year.
“It was too expensive,” he sighs. “Apparently, I am an international student and I have to pay more. I could feel my uncle was really struggling to pay the fees, so I figured I might as well drop out.”
Ibrahim has another plan.
“He wants to go to Tahriib,” Ahmed interjects, and Ibrahim chuckles. He has been saving the school fees his uncle sent him, and he now wants to use it to go to Europe. By sea.
“I tried to get a Kenyan ID, but it did not work out. I know I won’t find a job even if I complete the degree,” Ibrahim says, biting his lower lip.
He is accompanied on the journey by Abdi, who came to Nairobi early 2017, solely to find a way to go to Europe. Abdi is only 18 and he has also dropped out of high school. Both his parents were resettled in Canada, and he is himself undergoing the process, but he couldn’t wait.
“My parents want me to stay in Dadaab and wait until my resettlement case works out, but it’s taking forever. I cannot stay in Dadaab,” he says.
“I tell them to stay,” Ahmed says, and Ibrahim and Abdi both inject, blurting out, almost in unison, ”He knows his wife will sponsor him.”
The boys all first met at Sacdiyo’s place, and have since become friends, and they all agree Kenya is not enough for them.
In Dadaab, if you have a high school diploma, you are likely to find a job with one of the NGOs which operate in the refugee camp for an array of roles —you could help with translations, you could work as a research assistant, you could run a press office, among other jobs. Such employees, however, are called “incentive workers” and they are paid a beggarly amount, barely one percent what a Kenyan would earn for the same job. Why? You ask. Well, Kenya does not permit a refugee to work. This is a great injustice, which has largely been ignored.
Refugees are met with animosity the world over, especially now when there are 65 million of them, but Kenya has done better and could do more by recognizing the refugees as one of its own. This is why campaigns like LuQuLuQu are important – initiatives to help people, and Kenyans, recognize refugees as more than just…well, refugees. Look at the United States, where Ilhan Omar, herself once a refugee here in Kenya, was elected a lawmaker, or Canada, where Ahmed Hussen, also a former refugee, became the minister for immigration, refugees, and citizenship. Can’t the same be replicated in Kenya? Can Ilhan happen here? Not yet. With LuQuLuQu, the UNHCR hopes to help push this particular agenda – that refugees need the same things everyone else does, and are just victims of a sorry circumstance. After all, how do we expect the conditions to improve if the people are not allowed to work?
Do refugees always have to go to Europe or America to better their lives?