I was jolted by what Kenyan Deputy President William Ruto said on Saturday, April 11, when he visited Nyeri County in Kenya’s central region.
He gave the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees three months to relocate the refugees in Dadaab camps to Somalia, and if this is not done, he went on to say, the government would do the work itself.
These words unsettled me for the rest of the day. Because I am not just a refugee in Dadaab; I was also born in Dadaab, in Kenya.
A few questions flooded my mind when I first read his statements. Will they come with a big lorry and cart me to a country I’ve never seen before? How will they go about it? Will police officers drag me out of my house and throw me into the back of a truck against my will? Will they ask my 80-year-old dad to get out of the mosque and quickly pack his stuff?
What will happen next? I wonder.
It seems we soon have to pack our bags.
Will my dad go back to his hometown Luuq in Somalia’s Gedo region? Will mom insist on going to her birthplace Negelle in Ethiopia? Will they settle in a completely different place?
This is something that may take more than three months for them to decide.
As for me, I don’t know where to go. I somehow think I still belong here. Will I be forced out of the only home I have known all my life?
Though she has been in the U.S. for a decade now, my sister always asks me to send her photos from Dadaab. This is also the only place she knows. The dust. The scorching sun. The dry acacia trees. They are all ours.
Dadaab will forever be in my mind no matter what happens. I will set my fiction here. I know I carry the most important material with me everywhere I go: My childhood. That remains my reference as I follow my dream of becoming a writer.
Ah the memories! I remember when I was a child growing up in Ifo refugee camp. I’d go to school every morning. Sometimes on an empty stomach. Education was a solemn enterprise in those days. I remember elderly women learning English under the shades of the trees. Everyone was eager to build a bright future for their family. No one wanted to be called a refugee. It was like an insult. But it has now become our identity and Kenya began to hate us for who we are.
Leaders in Kenya point fingers at the refugees in Dadaab camps every time there is a security incident. In May 2012, Mwai Kibaki, the then president, asked the international community to back the returning of Somali refugees in Dadaab to the safe regions in Somalia. Unlike the Uhuru government though, Kibaki’s was more circumspect, asserting the refugees are a strain to the economy. No respite from the Uhuru government; they want the refugees out. No compromise.
Kenya signed a tripartite agreement with Somalia and UNHCR in November 2013. It was agreed the Somali refugees will be returned to their country, voluntarily (as per international law), and over a period of three years.
The process started in December last year. So far only 2,048 refugees (442 households) voluntarily returned, according to a report released by UNHCR Kenya early this month. Clearly not many people want to go back.
Seemingly the rule doesn’t hold anymore. It’s now by force. Kenya turns the said agreement on its head, something which would be considered refoulement under international law.
No one mentions how the insecurity in Kenya impacts the refugees.
On April 1, just the day before the bloody Garissa killings, three armed gunmen attacked the Windle Trust Kenya (WTK) compound in Hagadera refugee camp. They killed Njue Job, a secondary school tutor, and left three security guards with minor injuries. WTK immediately relocated its staff from Hagadera. Teaching in the secondary schools in the camp was stopped. UNHCR also halted its operations for six days.
The first time a similar episode happened was in October, 2011. Montserrat Seera I Ridao and Blance Thiebaut, Spanish workers from Doctors Without Borders, were kidnapped on the outskirts of Ifo refugee camp where I lived. The UN Refugee Agency quickly halted operations in Dadaab availing only the basic services.
Then, Kenya sent its troops into Somalia and everything changed.
The debut blast rocked Ifo refugee camp in November 2011 and the number of blasts quickly went up to six by December, killing a single policeman. Enraged police cracked on the Somali refugees in the name of seeking weapons, beating up scores and arresting others in an operation which lasted two days.
That was the day when Dadaab ceased to be a safe haven for the refugees.
No one also mentions the benefits Kenya gets from Dadaab.
Many Kenyans work with the NGOs that operate in the camps. They teach in the schools; they run the offices; they work at the hospitals. Kenya also gets funds for just being kind enough to host the refugees. The UNHCR Kenya team greatly contributed to the emergency response on the attack at Garissa University College. They brought vehicles, ambulances and medical supplies from Dadaab refugee camps. This turned out to be very helpful.
Back to my story. I am now all grown up. I completed high school last year. I wrote about Dadaab even when I was a student, getting published in the major Kenyan newspapers. I only rooted for the success stories. I wrote about the strong Somali women; I wrote about the refugee students who achieved impressive grades in school; I wrote about the experiences of my own family.
Perhaps it’s now coming to an end.
My family has enjoyed the peace and security in Kenya. We, the children, were lucky to get quality education. We now know more about Kenya and less about our ancestral country Somalia. We love this country. It’s unnecessary to brand us terrorists; to see us as the enemy. If we are not citizens, we are fellow Africans. The poor leadership is to blame for the security emergency in the country. Not us.
If the Kenyan government decides to return Somali refugees to Somalia, let it do so with kindness and sensitivity. As we say in Somali, “Cimri tagay ceeb laguma sagootiyo,” a long life is not crowned with bad deeds.
Kenya, you have done a lot for the refugees.
Don’t tarnish the respect you earned; if you must end this, do so honorably.
That is all we’re asking for right now.
This article first appeared on Sahan Journal.