The Birth of a City: Putting Down Roots in a Refugee Camp

By Dialika Krahe in Kenya

Part 2: Tons of Aid, and Famine

Every day, Ochalla's colleagues with the World Food Program drive their trucks to the warehouses. Each truck is loaded with 28 tons of relief supplies, including corn meal from the United States and porridge from Turkey. The logistics experts' goal is to maintain a three-month inventory of food, but at the moment there is only enough food available for two months.

Once every 15 days, each camp resident can expect to receive 3.36 kilograms (7.4 lbs.) of wheat flour, 3.36 kilos of cornmeal, 0.96 kilos of lentils, 0.48 liters (16 oz.) of vegetable oil, 0.72 kilos of porridge and 80 grams of salt. It isn't much, but it's enough to stay alive.

The aid arrives by air and sea from all over the world. The refugees arrive at the border, some in shared taxis, but most on foot, after enduring a trek through the harsh Somali landscape. It is as if two unending tides were advancing toward one another, the refugees and the aid. The only question is: Which tide will ebb first?

It is 8 a.m. An aid worker carrying a megaphone walks among the refugee groups and tries to organize them by family size. Once Nuriya and her children have been classified as "Family Size 5," they are allowed through the gates. The three-year-old is crying. No one says a word.

Before Nuriya can become a camp resident, and before she and her girls are given anything to eat, they are required to pass through various stations. At one station, she dips her finger into black dye for identification purposes. At another station, an aid worker asks her whether she was raped or attacked by wild animals. Nuriya shakes her head. "I saw four children die," she says. "We buried them by the side of the road."

Now the sun is beating down on the square, and the waiting refugees cower under the UNHCR tents. The refugee agency acts as the lead organization in Dadaab. Its workers attempt to coordinate the contributions and efforts of 25 other aid organizations, so that they don't all do the same thing, money isn't wasted and things are done fairly. If someone were to randomly start distributing rice in the camp, it could trigger a riot.

In the reception area, the German Agency for International Cooperation conducts the medical examinations, CARE manages food distribution and the International Organization for Migration brings refugees from the border to the camp. Yet another group of rickety buses has just arrived at the gate.

Nuriya sits on a bench and watches as the doors open and more refugees, a group that has just been collected at the border, emerge from the buses. Children are handed down across the steps. One boy isn't wearing shoes or underpants. The women carry cloth bundles.

Ochalla, the unofficial camp mayor, stands at the main gate, less than 10 meters away from Nuriya, and observes the same scene, but with different eyes. He is leading a delegation from Japan on a tour of the camp, including the reception area and the new city for refugees. The Japanese take pictures. Ochalla says: "We are in trouble. We thought the numbers were going down, but more and more people have been coming in the last few days." The aid workers expect 1,500 new arrivals on this particular day.

For Nuriya, this means that perhaps hardly any Somalis will be living in Somalia soon, and that she may never be able to return to her country. For Ochalla, it means that even more refugees will become residents of his refugee city, and that he will have to work more quickly.

Waiting for Food

Ochalla considers it a good day when he can house 1,000 people in the new tents; 1,500 is a different story. He works nonstop, rushing from one area to another, and wherever he goes, refugees hold out their hands, asking: "Where is the water? Where is my tent?" He gathers the Japanese visitors and climbs into the UN vehicle. Nuriya continues to sit there, watching and waiting.

At about 10 a.m., her exhausted three-year-old daughter falls backward off the bench, bumping her head on the ground. She screams and screams, while her mother tries desperately to calm her down, fearing that her family will be rejected if the aid workers notice the girl crying, and that she won't get any food for her children. After she has been waiting for five hours, without water or food, Nuriya is finally ushered into the receiving office.

A volunteer takes her fingerprint. Another worker brings five blue plastic bracelets, placing one around Nuriya's wrist and the others around her children's' wrists. The bracelets are numbered in black ink: 519 846 to 519 850. They serve as a means of identification, transforming Somali refugees into Somali camp residents. Nuriya leaves the receiving area with five 500-gram packages of high-energy biscuits, which contain 11,450 kilocalories. The children shove the crumbly biscuits into their mouths and chew them with the serious expressions of old people.

They've been vaccinated, and doctors have examined them to determine whether they are severely or only moderately malnourished. Nuriya has been given cooking utensils, a few grass mats and a tarp. She has also received a 21-day food ration that includes flour, oil and salt. A new life is about to begin for Nuriya and her family. If all goes well, they could soon be living in a tent in Ochalla's city, and eventually in a stone house. For the time being she has no choice but to sleep outside.

The tent distribution office consists of a tarp, a generator, two employees and three laptops. This is the place where the future city begins. Every morning, a group of people sit in the sand outside the field office of camp mayor Ochalla, old men who no longer have families and women in colorful veils, holding up their papers and calling out the number of children they have. Ochalla raises his hands into the air and says: "suk, suk, suk." Suk, which means "wait," is one of the few Somali words he knows. Refugees do a lot of waiting.

Dadaab, a Boomtown of Need

By entrusting themselves to the care of the aid machine, the refugees have lost control over their lives. Arriving in Dadaab also means abandoning one's freedom.

Dadaab is now the third-largest city in Kenya, but there are no Kenyans living there. Instead, it is home to 450,000 Somalis in a camp that was built for 90,000 people. Refugees like Nuriya are not permitted to leave the camp, because the Kenyan government wants them to remain refugees and not become illegal immigrants. The government also prohibits them from working.

To get a sense of what his city could look like one day, Ochalla drives to another section of the camp, Ifo 2, where the first stone houses have been built for refugees. There are 116 red brick model houses with corrugated metal roofs in Ifo 2, but all are still empty, making the place look like a very orderly ghost town. It also has schools, a police station and a water supply. The Kenyan government put a stop to the project, fearing that it would encourage the refugees to settle there permanently. But that has been a reality for some time now.

Ochalla does what is normally avoided in refugee policy: He tries to give people a permanent place to live, a home. Refugee policy makes things as uncomfortable as possible for refugees, so they're encouraged to leave. But, says Ochalla, "we learned this from the other camps. We too thought it would only be for two years, but then two years had suddenly turned into 20. I don't believe that these people can return to Somalia."

In mid-July, the Kenyan prime minister allowed the development of the new city to continue, partly because of overcrowding and the acute needs of the refugees, but international pressure probably played a role, too. The city could mark the beginning of a refugee policy that recognizes that starving people need more than food. They need a future, one that includes a place to live, perhaps a plot of land and the right to support themselves through work. This rethinking of refugee policy is also needed to prevent the aid machinery from eventually collapsing.

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The UN's Ifo Refugee Camp, near Dadaab in northeastern Kenya. Zoom
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The UN's Ifo Refugee Camp, near Dadaab in northeastern Kenya.


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