Story originally published in the Standard on Sunday on June 14th 2015
Mohammed Abdi Abdulahi is slightly built with an even slighter tone to his voice. Words slip out of his lips so nervously, his syllables seem accidental. Like they wouldn’t want to impose themselves on the goings-on. Like they are used to not being heard. He is 27, old enough to have a wife and child. But not old enough to have a dream he can believe in. “What can we do? This is life for us,” he says. Next to him a billboard towers.
“Somalia is my home, to return is my choice,” it declares. Mohammed is part of its target audience, but somehow, the message does not make sense. It is the same for hundreds of thousands of other refugees from Somalia. “Return where? Even if you were to get me onto a bus, or a plane and drop me in Somalia, where would I. I am Kenyan in every way,” he says. Finding shade The Dadaab refugee camp population is 353,590. Of these, 336,695 are from Somalia. At the height of the humanitarian crisis in 2011, the population had increased to 486,913.
Mohammed is a statistic, clawing through life to become more than a number. Dadaab is a massive complex made up of five satellite camps – Dagahaley, Ifo Main, Ifo 2, Kambioos and Hagadera. Hagadera has been Mohammed’s home all his life. His family found a livelihood here more than two decades ago. Later, he found love. “Even when you are in the harshest of deserts, somehow you will find shade,” he philosophises. Sara Hassan Mohammed has been his shade in the sun.
“Without him, I would suffer a lot. I have been a refugee for as long as I have been alive… My mum gave birth to me here. I have done the same. I have a daughter,” Sara says. The two have been married for close to five years. “At least our daughter has a birth certificate. We hope in future she can use it to get other papers that will enable her to follow her heart’s desires,” Mohammed says. At birth, they didn’t haggle over the name best suited for their daughter. “We called her Sumaiya.
“We were tired of living a bad life. She is one of the few good things that have happened to us while here,” says Sara. Sumaiya loosely translates to ‘good quality.’ The two want the best for their child. But they remain practical to the realities around them.
“You ask me what I want Sumaiya to have in future,” Sara says.
“Do you have children?”
“What do you want for her?”
“I want her to go to the best schools. I want her to find her purpose early in life. I want her to have access to the best healthcare if need be…” I begin.
“Adheer, you have complicated dreams,” says Sara.
“I just want Sumaiya to travel and see the world… I want her to leave Hagadera and decide whether she can go north, south, east or west. I want her to be free,” she says.
A tear falls on her orange hijab and expands into an intrusive, shapeless blot, but in a few minutes, the moisture is gobbled up by Hagadera’s unforgiving heat. Sumaiya, has fallen asleep under her mother’s hijab. Mohammed knows about love. At least enough to know that his family cannot live off the four-letter word.
“To be a refugee is hard. But to be a husband, a father and the sole breadwinner for family, both extended and immediate, is something else,” he says. “I know she loves me… but what if she meets someone who can offer her much more than I can?” he says. “Would I stand in the way of her happiness? I don’t know.” His eyes wander to a column of suitcases next to him. The cases hold their world. Their savings. Their education certificates – he and his wife went through secondary school in Hagadera. Nowadays, the suitcases stay packed.
“They say one day the government will tell us to leave,” Sara’s mother, Zeytun, joins the conversation. “We must be ready.” The relatives live in the same compound. Here it is called a ‘block section’. A section is made up of several blocks, normally of relatives or families that walked into the camp on the same day. Their houses are structures with twig walls and tarpaulin or polythene roofs. Some houses have iron sheet walls, but all the floors are earthen. Reed or manila mats are rolled over the floors to create the seating room.
A visitor is offered a plastic chair. If there are many visitors, then it becomes awkward. A decision has to be made on who takes the chair. At one end of the compound, a sheep and a goat share a tiny pen. “We used to have more animals, but Mohammed lost his job and we sold a few. We have to keep on living,” Zeytun says. “We know he will get another one soon, Inshallah.” For three years, Mohammed worked as an incentive worker for one of the aid agencies. Although he was qualified for the job he was given, he was paid a pittance to keep him interested in living. But what if he does not get another position? What next? “I trust Allah that the pen writing the story of my life has not run out of ink. And that as He turns the next page, my load will be lighter,” Mohammed says.
“But if His will is done, then that will be it. I will pray that at least I leave Sumaiya with memories passed down from my parents about their home in Somalia. My own memories of a place I would like to call home but can’t. And I will ask Allah to at least grant my daughter happier memories to give my grandchildren.” Normal life In April, during the aftermath of the tragic Garissa University massacre that left 148 dead and many more injured and traumatised, Deputy President William Ruto gave the United Nations three months to close the Dadaab refugee camps, failing which Kenya would forcefully return them to Somalia.