Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Rand's Visit to Dadaab Refugee Complex

Rand visited the Dadaab refugee complex in early October; here's his reflection on that visit.

After departing from home early in the morning and boarding a UN flight from a small airport in Nairobi at 7:00 a.m, we arrived an hour later at the tar and chip UN airstrip, with rain sprinkling---unusual for the area.  Dadaab is a town in Kenya's NE province, about 50 km from Somalia. It's dusty, flat, windy, and the sun is hot. This province and neighboring areas have been inhabited largely by Somali speaking peoples for centuries. The border drawn by colonial powers in the 19th century seemed indiscriminately to place some of these peoples in Kenya and some in Somalia. In recent decades, Somalia has been a country ruled by violence and chaos, and Kenya has become a new home to many of those fleeing the violence and fear. 

Our destination after driving through the small market town of Dadaab was the UN compound containing smaller encampments and offices for each of the several dozen NGOs and other agencies working in the area. The 5 actual refugee camps surround the town at some distance----Hagadera (the oldest and largest), Dagahali, Ifor I, Ifor II, and Kambi'oos (the newest and smallest). The various agencies with refugee expertise contract with the UN and divide responsibilities for various services in the camps. These agencies include big names like the International Rescue Committee, Islamic Relief, Care International, and MCC's partner and our host Lutheran World Federation.

LWF has a strong commitment to child protection and features prominently its Child Protection Code of Conduct on placards and t-shirts and more importantly in training of all staff, contractors, and guests, even guests visiting for just a few hours. We were also briefed on security and learned that since the first camp's beginnings in 1992, and until recently, violence and other security concerns have been rare. Starting in 2011, coincidental with rising international pressure on Somalia and the entry of Kenya's military into the conflict there, kidnappings of foreigners and planting of IEDs near the roadways between camps occur occasionally.  The explosives typically have targeted security forces and police, though with frequent collateral damage. The Westgate terrorist attack in Nairobi in late September brought fresh concern, yet the rate of kidnapping and other violence has not risen.  During our visit precautions will be taken, including accompaniment by the LWF security chief and a police escort vehicle.

There's a warm family atmosphere on the LWF compound. The staff here are all unaccompanied, take most all of their meals together at the mess, and rely on each other for companionship.  They play volleyball in the afternoons and sometimes visit a little outdoor nightclub serving food and drinks. The accommodations are comfortable and utilitarian, mostly cinderblock buildings with individual rooms, as well as a few tents and other moveable trailer-type housing.  Over the years, staff have planted and maintained trees, converting their portion of the UN compound to an oasis that even the birds appreciate.  A small colony of cats roam, gathering near the mess hall when meat is served, and they appear healthy and happy.  It was nice to see the staff treating the cats politely, possibly lovingly, even when chasing them off from stalking the birds.

LWF is working to simultaneously improve the quality of education and expand the school enrollment in Hagadera and Kambi'oos.  The camps' schools are at or over capacity, yet an estimated 55% of eligible children are not enrolled. Many of the unenrolled are Somali Bantu, a marginalized group among Somalis. Other challenges include moving from temporary structures to more solid, safer, cleaner school structures, providing desks and school supplies, providing adequate service to the special needs population, and integrating over-age learners who are years behind the typically-aged student in schooling.

Monday afternoon we visited the small LWF education compound within Hagadera.  The Kenyan teachers for both camps' schools reside in this compound, while incentive staff (staff hired from the refugee population) continue to live at home in the camps. The buildings and mess resembled those at the LWF compound in Dadaab town. We were accompanied by Sheik, the LWF Dadaab education coordinator (see his photo among some preschool children in the schoolyard at Hagadera). We met with a group of teachers who had completed the MCC-sponsored teacher training. All were appreciative, and they voiced some suggestions for improvement, too.  Hellen, LWF's regional education coordinator, and Sheik reported that some of the trained teachers had already left for other jobs back in Somalia or with other agencies in the camps; teaching in the camps pays little compared to some other jobs. The teachers appreciated classroom evaluation by the teacher training professors, as well as the strong emphasis on professionalism---punctuality, dress, behavior modification methods. They still desire further subject matter specialization, especially the secondary teachers.

Tuesday we drove through Hagadera to Kambi'oos along sandy roads in a small caravan, yielding only to another caravan.....this one a caravan of donkeys carrying gathered wood piled high on carts. The two schools in Kambi'oos cover only the primary levels (through level 8). Housing for Kenyan school staff at this camp is lacking, and with the  difficult and time-consuming travel between camps, teachers are able to keep school open only for the mornings.  The Hilal and Furaha schools' classrooms and open spaces were neat and inviting.  Though on the way to being replaced, some structures of plastic sheeting on wooden frames were still in use.  Balala, the ever-smiling camp education officer, accompanied us. At Furaha, we met with the school management committee, a group of parents elected to serve as a school advisory committee.  Both at this meeting and the teacher meeting on Monday, we opened with touching and reverential prayer spoken in Somali.  We dropped by a couple of special needs classrooms at Hilal---great to see the patient, loving teachers, and the smiling confident kids. After the school visits, we visited the camp livelihoods center where adults were engaged in micro-enterprise education, learning to make soap, weaving sheets, dying shawls, learning to sew and make pasta.  Interesting and hopeful. 

On Tuesday afternoon we had time for catching up with a bit of office work.  That evening after supper, we sat with much of the leadership staff in the night club and discussed politics, refugee work, and personal interests.  It was a nice time. We all felt like we had spent more time together than just a day and a half!

The next morning, Wednesday, at Amani primary school, Hagadera, we visited a special needs class and a couple of the older level classrooms preparing for exams, yet our objective the today was to meet with the Girls Education Movement (GEM club). These young women, about a dozen, were in levels 6-8 and spoke eloquently and confidently about the need to educate through some of their cultural and societal burdens and the barriers that are presented to women and girls. Very inspiring to see the sparkle in their eyes and the way they looked directly at us to speak about their dreams and the importance of education.  We left this school for a short drive to the small LWF compound near the Hagadera market to meet the special needs advisory committee.  The committee has 60 members, with a 15 member executive committee, of whom we met 6.  Some of these members had special needs, and we were glad to speak with them about their challenges and the support they receive from LWF. Those with special needs are sometimes overlooked in emergency and disaster response. Awareness and planning around their needs is a recent trend among refugee agencies, and  LWF has been a strong special-needs advocate.

MCC has a unique opportunity to support educational efforts at these camps, to interact with and learn from LWF, and to stay connected to the East Africa refugee situation at one of the largest population refugee locations in the world. These people, some of the world's most vulnerable, by some accounts hold in their hands the future of Somalia, one of the most unstable countries in the world.  The ideas and education they receive now will be a part of that future.  MCC is privileged to support this partner LWF and its refugee educational efforts. MCC constituents have the privilege of staying in touch with the refugee situation in Kenya through an organization working hand-in-hand with the refugees themselves.

 Abae Sheikh Maro, an LWF education program manager in Dadaab, with preschool children.

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