“I see myself as a Kenyan and Kakuma is my home” are the first words that come out of Shadrack Bazompora when asked about the looming closures of Kakuma and Daadab camps; two of the largest refugee settlements in the world.
Before the WhatsApp interview, Bazompora asks whether he can use ‘Sheng’ — a Kenyan urban vernacular that combines mainly Kiswahili and English — to share his thoughts.
In true Kenyan poise, his words circle back to eleven years ago when he alongside his mother and some of his siblings were forced to flee to Kenya following a long civil war in Burundi.
“I was just 14 years old, going 15,” he said in polished Sheng. “I tell you, it was horrible. I never want to go through that experience again” he added.
Eleven years on, it isn’t the sleeping in the bush for several days, the hiding from potential attackers, or the “cramming at the back of a lorry” during a two weeks long journey to Kenya that sticks out in his reality as a refugee.
Neither is it his life before Kakuma when his missing father and two older brothers were still around.
It is the fact that he found a peaceful place to consier home at Kukuma camp.
Bazompora’s story echoes that of many others who have fled from countries like Ethiopia, South Sudan, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Uganda and now call Kakuma — in the North-western part of Kenya — home. It is estimated that 160,000 refugees live here.
Many of them like Bazompora arrived when they were children. Having grown up here, they see themselves as nothing else but part of the Kenyan fabric.
22 year old Nhial Deng is South Sudanese but was born in a refugee camp in Ethiopia. He escaped to Kenya in 2010 following instability in the Ethiopian government. After more than a decade of schooling and living at the camp, he too now considers himself fully Kenyan. It is also here where Deng has developed his passion for peacebuilding.
“I am about to begin my studies in Conflict and Peace Building at Berkeley University in America. I really want to be the example that shows these young refugees here that they can also achieve something for themselves”
Although he feels lucky to be leaving the camp for the US, he still is anxious about his legacy.
In the last few years, Deng founded the Refugee Youth Peace Ambassadors, a youth-led initiative to promote a peaceful co-existence between different communities in the Kakuma camp while also empowering them to be peace-builders and social entrepreneurs.
But all that he fears is at risk as the Kenyan government has announced plans to close both Daadab and Kakuma camps by June 2022. With this looming uncertainty for many of the residents, he is worried that the only stability they’ve known is about to be shaken away from them.
“Once again it feels like your life is positioned upside down. Because, fleeing your own country is one thing, but then again being asked to leave the place you have found a home is another. This isn’t just very traumatising, it’s also just knowing when and how your whole world is coming to an end”, said Deng sounding very defeated.
“Just looking back at my story, I never felt home in Ethiopia. I never felt at home in South Sudan, in fact, I have never even lived there. And you know home is where you’re able to live with dignity and you’re able to live in peace. We found that here. We shouldn’t be kicked out” he continues.
The UN Refugee Agency UNHCR meanwhile in a statement said, they agreed with the Kenyan government that “refugee camps are not a long-term solution to forced displacement”. They however hope that as a country, Kenya will continue to extend its hospitality towards refugees and asylum-seekers as they seek ways to find other viable solutions.
Kenyan Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary Raychelle Omamo at the same time explained the intention behind the scheduled closures.
“Closure of the camps must be seen as an aspiration. We are not chasing people away, but a camp is not a permanent thing. It is a place of limbo. No one should live in a place of uncertainty or indignity generation after generation,” she said.
For nearly 30 years, Kenya has shouldered the burden of sheltering refugees at the Kakuma and Daadab camps which have unfortunately overstretched their maximum intended capacity.
As a result, the Kenyan government has in the past expressed concerns over the potential security risks the settlements pose calling for their closures in recent years. Kakuma and Daadab camps host a combined total of 433,765 refugees and asylum seekers.
Meanwhile, as discussions continue on how to go about the closures, young refugees like Bazompora and Deng have their fingers crossed that a permanent solution can be found for everyone who has adopted Kenya as their new home.