In spite of efforts to reduce refugees to numbers and statistics, rhetoric that turns refugees into “security threats”, and labels that homogenize, generalize, and foreground their suffering, the refugees I interacted with in Kakuma and Kalobeyei defy many outsiders’ perceptions and expectations.
This July, I traveled to Kakuma, Kenya and worked with refugee filmmakers and graduates of the FilmAid training program to create documentaries about life in the United Nations Kalobeyei refugee settlement and Kakuma refugee camp. In addition, I taught a workshop on “Media Representation and Screenwriting as a Tool for Social Change” to the refugee filmmakers. My goal was to provide the refugees with knowledge they can use in their present situation, to voice their opinions and tell their stories.
The daily lives of the refugees I met and spoke to, confirm that at the end of the day, despite the “refugee” label that works to ‘other’ them in people’s eyes, these refugees are just as fully and boldly human as anyone else.
I worked on the “Health and Education” video with my film team: Barry, Stallone, Loduye, Akune (FilmAid alums) and Nicholas (a fellow Penn student) and we were able to interview Thothamoi, a 23 year old female secondary school student living in the Kalobeyei settlement and film her on the walk from her home to school.
Kalobeyei is an arid area, even drier and hotter than Kakuma, because it is new and there are fewer mature trees. Nevertheless, Thothamoi’s story reflects her tenacity, brilliance, and ability (like so many other refugee community members) to grow verdant gardens of motivation and dreams out of the sun-dried landscape.
After Thothamoi fled Ethiopia, she lived with her sister in the UN Dadaab refugee camp here in Kenya. Later, she and her sister were transferred from Dadaab to Kalobeyei, the new settlement the UN established next to Kakuma. When she fled Ethiopia, she was unable to attend school for a long time. When she arrived in Dadaab, she started school again and graduated from primary school.
However, once again, a move (from Dadaab to Kalobeyei) halted her dreams of academic success.When she was transferred from Dadaab to Kalobeyei, there was no secondary school established, and thus Thothamoi had no opportunity to attend school.
The Kenyan secondary school year is divided into three terms. For a term and a half, Thothamoi didn’t know if she would ever be able to go to school again, “I never knew… I didn’t dream that I would continue learning anymore,” she told us. Eventually the Kalobeyei secondary school opened, and she worked hard to catch up on the half of the school year that she missed. She is now in Form 3, the second to last Kenyan secondary school level.
It is unfortunately rare to find a girl in secondary school at Kalobeyei, and Thothamoi told us that she is indeed the only girl in her class. Thothamoi explained that family and community pressure for girls to quit school and focus on marriage prevents many girls from continuing in school.
Still, she implored all girls to pursue education, saying, “I encourage all girls to attend Kalobeyei secondary school.” Even if a woman has had a child, Thothamoi said in her interview, they should still come to school and they will not be judged for their age or anything else. It is abundantly apparent that education is a priority for Thothamoi. She stated that once she had tasted the “sweetness of education”, she couldn’t let go. She dreams of going to university and coming back to make a difference in her “society and all societies.”
So many of the refugees I have spoke with have a tremendous commitment to the greater good, both inside and outside of their own communities.
After Thothamoi’s walking interview, we arrived at her school, Kalobeyei Secondary, and met with the Deputy Principal, Omot. Deputy Principal Omot is himself a refugee. Omot’s leadership position highlights the significant roles refugee community members have taken up to assist their communities, even as they themselves face their own obstacles.
Omot introduced us to Yawa, a female teacher at the secondary school, who left South Sudan during its current civil war. Yawa is one of the few female teachers in the settlement. She spoke with us about the issues facing students, especially female students, in Kalobeyei. Kalobeyei’s secondary school is unable to provide feminine hygiene products, which means female students must sometimes leave school for a while, every month.
In addition, many students are unable to obtain uniforms or workbooks. Many children also come to school, not having eaten breakfast, and the secondary school in Kalobeyei doesn’t provide them with lunches, at present.
Despite these challenges, it was apparent that many students in Kakuma and Kalobeyei are motivated to build a life for themselves through education. Still, scholarships are few, and it is easy to be discouraged by the limited employment opportunities – even for those who graduate from secondary school.
Later in that same day, we drove to the Kenyan Red Cross (KRC) “tracing tent” in Kalobeyei, where the KRC assists people in recovering vital documents which were lost or left behind. In addition, phone calls can be a significant expense, so the Kenya Red Cross tracing unit helps refugees call family members they have been separated from. Unfortunately, the time limit for calls is just three minutes, but the refugees are eager and grateful to connect with their families, in spite of the limited time.
After visiting the KRC tracing tent, we followed Majok, a Red Cross Community Health Worker, who does direct health outreach in the Kalobeyei community. As he walked through the residential area, he stopped to measure children’s arms for malnourishment and spoke with families to inform them of Red Cross services.
While filming B-Roll of Majok outside of the tent-like UNHCR structures of Kalobeyei, lots of excited children ran up to the camera. In an effort to distract the children, one of our team members, Akune, gathered them in a circle, away from the camera, and asked them to sing a song. With smiles on their faces, the children sang “Bye, bye teacher. I want to go home. My mother is alone. Bye, bye teacher!”
During the song the children danced and laughed. We could have been anywhere in the world. Only the dust of Kalobeyei on some of the children’s faces and the bold, blue UNHCR on the side of the tent-like homes, indicated that we were indeed here, in Kalobeyei refugee settlement.
And that is part of the complexity of this trip, and the nuanced, multi-faceted nature of my take-aways. By focusing on the joy, the dreams, and the universal qualities that the refugee community members have developed to an extraordinary level here in Kakuma and Kalobeyei, I do not mean to trivialize the extreme trauma and violence which many refugees have faced.
Some might argue that highlighting positive and inspiring aspects of the refugee’s lives, might discourage donations and diminish the immense barriers they face. I disagree. When speaking with many of my FilmAid refugee team members, I was often told that they wish the media portrayed refugees in a more balanced way.
Instead of worrying about whether positive portrayals of refugees would reduce funding, perhaps the more important question is: why? Why would stories about striving, intrepid, refugees discourage nations’ or individuals’ support? Why is it that people must be dead to deserve one’s help? Why don’t we do a better job of investing in each other instead of patting ourselves on the back when we “rescue” someone?
An overemphasis on refugee suffering without constructive and actionable changes to provide them with agency, only serves to define the people here by their situation. It would be more accurate, to allow them to define themselves by what is within. While that may be great sadness, and loss, it might also be joy, resilience, and hope.
At the end of the day, as my team member, the award winning filmmaker and refugee, Loduye, (who has lived in Kakuma his entire life) said, “You and me are the same. If I had the same opportunities as you, I could be doing the same thing. The only difference is the label of ‘refugee.’”