In 1991, thousands of Somalis flooded into Kenya’s barren northeast. The initial influx was prompted by the collapse of the Somali government, and by the prolonged civil war that followed.
Two decades later, little has changed. A refugee complex designed for 90,000 inhabitants in 1992 is now bursting at the seams. By May, the official number of registered refugees in Dadaab was 401,913.
Including those who have not registered, as well as those who fled to Nairobi’s Eastleigh, it would be fair to claim that Kenya now hosts well over half a million refugees.
Despite the rhetoric assuring a secure Mogadishu, and a Kenyan government keen to rid Garissa of its inconvenient guests, Dadaab’s refugees are still reluctant to leave. In a recent survey, at least 50 per cent of the refugees questioned said that they could not even consider returning to Somalia.
Despite the fact that Kenya is among the world’s 30 poorest countries, the economic situation in Dadaab is better when compared with other arid and semi-arid regions of the country.
So there are incentives to stay. With that in mind, the policies of some of the development organisations working in Dabaab to facilitate training workshops for jobs in Somalia seem counter-productive.
Strategies designed to develop livelihood opportunities within the camp seem more apt; and there is one such initiative that stands out in particular.
Earlier this year, FilmAid launched Dadaab Stories — an online, multimedia project charting everyday life in the camp. The innovative project aims to create a platform for Dadaab’s many inhabitants to share their stories through video, photography, poetry, music and community journalism.
It provides a window for a global audience to engage with the refugees through information and imagery on the Dadaab Stories website. Though FilmAid has been filming, teaching and screening in Dadaab since 2006, this is the first time that the work of the refugees has been available to such a wide audience.
An example of the type of stories shared is a short interview with Mohamed Ali Ahmed, an ex-professional Somali footballer who was forced to flee Somalia because of the civil war.
He now tries to balance running his business while looking after his nine children — one of whom is severely disabled. Also showcased are the Dadaab All Stars, a group of rappers who have made a music video calling for an international day of “community action and life-saving activities.”
Other features follow aid workers carrying out their daily routines in one of Dadaab’s five camps, summarise the visit of Scarlett Johansson as an Oxfam ambassador and outline the life of an ex-Dadaab refugee who has recently resettled in the United States.
Perhaps the most significant offshoot from the Dadaab Stories initiative, though, was the establishment of The Refugee newspaper. Facilitated by FilmAid, the paper was started by a group of refugees who saw the need for a medium of mass communication among Dadaab’s 500,000 inhabitants.
“The community wanted a newspaper that talks about their problems — their grievances — so that they can share them with the outside world,” said Aden Tarah, The Refugee’s chief editor in an interview published on Dadaab Stories.
Though the newspaper employs a team of staff journalist, some of whom have been trained by FilmAid, anyone can contribute. The prospect of working as a journalist, though, seems to be attracting more women than men in Dadaab.
The fact that young women in particular are getting involved is refreshing considering that Dadaab has reportedly become an increasingly dangerous place for women to live.
According to reports published recently by UNHCR and a number of other aid agencies, gender-based violence and systemic discrimination against women is increasing within the camp.
Save the Children’s report Unspeakable Crimes Against Children suggests that Dadaab’s adolescent girls are frequent victims of sexual violence. Some parents are reportedly marrying off their daughters to interested men in return for their “daily brea”; if the girls refuse, they are threatened with death or a return to Somalia.
Journalism, then, seems to provide a welcome release in Dadaab. Somalia, though, has a history of repressing journalism, and it remains one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a media worker.
For Dadaab’s reporters, freedom of speech is a cause worth fighting for. And the forum created by Dadaab Stories is clearly a step in the right direction. It gives the opportunity for young refugees to tell their stories, while at the same time developing skills that may one day be utilised in a unified and less politically volatile Somalia.