In the wake of the Garissa University College shootings that left nearly 150 people dead, the Kenyan government has threatened to close the world’s largest refugee camp. In response, US Secretary of State John Kerry promised an extra $45m to the United Nations to cope with their refugee crisis, presenting an opportunity for Kenya to support over 600,000 refugees from Somalia and South Sudan in a way that not only empowers those refugees, but also enhances its own security and prosperity.
Lately, the Kenyan government has not proven itself to be a paragon of a host country for displaced people. Its treatment of Somali refugees after the Garissa shooting has shown the government to be an understandably nervous one, looking for a scapegoat for increasingly common terrorist attacks. With the threat to shut down the Dadaab camp, they risk further displacing an already traumatised group of people. They can – and must – do better.As a refugee and as someone who has worked with refugees for over 16 years, I know that not only can Kenya do better, but it can also create a model for how other countries can deal with a constant influx of displaced people from various conflicts.
Loss of identity
After escaping unrest in Sierra Leone in March 1991, I learned that when you start to run at a young age, one of the things you lose is your identity. National identity is something most people take for granted, yet to this day, I still have a difficult time knowing how to tell people where I’m from.
My family was displaced for so long that some of my siblings were born while we were refugees in Guinea and have never seen Sierra Leone. It remains difficult for my family to make sense of who we are. I am not “Guinean” or “Sierra Leonean” or “American” but “a refugee”.
When we lose this sense of statehood, we try to find other places to belong. We can lose our self-worth and sense of social responsibility. This lack of ownership in a country is often what leads to extremism. The Garissa shooters may not have been refugees, but the current hostile treatment of displaced Somalis in Kenya will only lead to further attacks.
I was 16 when I became a refugee. At a time when I should have been imagining an exciting future for myself, I had to focus on survival and started to feel hopeless.