18 October 2017

Kenya: Why My Brave Mum Chose Dadaab Refugee Camp Over Home

Photo: Kate Holt/IRIN
Refugees at Dadaab refugee camp in north eastern Kenya (file photo).
opinion

'No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark', a line from Kenyan-born Somali poet Warsan Shire's poem "Home" is no doubt one of the most popular rallying cries for refugees and its advocates.

The mouth of a shark, for us, presented itself as a drought and my brave mother, Amina Sugow Nuriye, took us to Dadaab refugee camp to save us.

The story I'm about to tell you today is as much her story as it is mine.

My name is Dahir Abdullahi.

I'm 28 years old and the first-born child among eight siblings. Mum lost her third born child, who was born in Dadaab refugee camp, to Measles.

I'm married with two sons and my wife, mum and siblings still live in Dadaab town.

I'm the only one among my siblings with a job so naturally, I'm the breadwinner for my extended family.

WHERE I WAS BORN

I was born in the Somalia-Kenya border, in the outskirts of a small village called Amuma in todays's Garissa County, two years before the civil war engulfed my ancestral home.

At the time, our family was pastoralist, keeping a fair herd of cattle.

My father, a strong and no-nonsense man, one that you can hardly find in thousands of men was a Duksi (Qur'anic schools, similar to the madrasah or kutaab schools) teacher who was so loving, caring but hardly excused you for the slightest mistakes on earth.

His strictness, however, went a long way in shaping the man I am today. But today's piece is about mum.

When the civil war broke out in Somalia sometime in 1991, there was also natural disaster on our side of the border too.

A drought was ravaging most parts of Northern Kenya decimating the only source of livelihood many of us knew.

While many Somali-Kenyans in Northern Kenya will argue that Somali refugees brought more harm than good- believe me they did not only came the right hour but a saviours too.

ANIMALS PERISHED

Since our animals perished in the drought and thus subsequent widespread of food shortages and hunger, my mother made the decision to flee to Liboi, a border point where Somalis displaced by war were registered as refugees leaving behind our dad who was unwilling to make the journey.

Mum told me that I was only three years old and my younger sister was about eight months old.

The journey was tiresome and full of horror, exacerbated by ugly images of exhausted families who gave up the battle to reach 'Canaan' and even bodies of injured people and those still bleeding without much help.

JOURNEY BY FOOT

We joined other families fleeing from the drought to the long arduous journey by foot. I remember my sister resting at the back of my mother in the entire journey envying her comfort.

I patiently waited for that time when I would swap with my sister but she was another 'Mugabe'.

She would sometimes cry when I playfully wanted to reach her and give her a kiss.

Mum told me that I was walking for most of the journey and could keep the long strides of Duksi boys who were mostly between five and ten years old.

I remember families fleeing using donkey's backs to carry children and belongings.

At some point, I asked mum to request for a lift since I was tired but my request was declined.

I could see children some older than me protruding their heads from a structured sort of cube placed and tightened around the donkey back which is traditionally known as Guro.

RAN OUT OF FOOD

Mum toldme that there was a food shortage on day two of the journey.

I remember her carrying some few kilogrammes of maize flour and she would make some porridge from it. The porridge had no milk or sugar in it. It was completely tasteless!

But we succeeded in cheating our empty stomachs.

Since my sister was breastfeeding, I guess mum was not able to produce milk for her forcing my sister to cry all time. I was wondering why she was crying and yet she didn't set her foot on the ground.

I was praying that she is left behind so that I take her position. It never happened.

ABSOLUTELY NO FOOD

On the third day of the journey, there was absolutely no food.

We fed on wild fruits and tree leaves locally knowns as Garas and Dolool respectively.

We were avoiding paths and roads throughout the journey for fear of attack from our brotherly tribe Hawiye which has taken over significant parts of Lower Jubba region, Somalia.

We had been trekking through thick bushes and thorn-covered vegetation. My feet had scratches and my feet were swollen.

During this entire struggle, I didn't understand why we left our father and why my mum would take me through this unforgiving journey.

The journey took us three days and we finally reached Liboi where refugee's registration was ongoing. There was no much scrutiny or checks on your background.

As long as you spoke Somali language and you said that you fled from Somalia, you got registered.

HOPE AT LAST

We registered with UNHCR as refugees and to many teenage mothers like my Mom, being registered as a refugee represented hope.

Somali-Kenyans who sought the refugee status lied about their origin and would give false testimonies of their journey.

I remember my mother saying that she fled from Kismayu city then followed by villages in sequence and proximity to Kismayu city.

Many of us never crossed to Somalia but ended up pretending to be displaced by the civil war so that we would get registered and enjoy the free rations given to our brothers.

We were issued with family size-3 ration card which entitled us to food and shelter.

This card was like your title deed and you would wrap in several cloths to keep it warm away from the wind and any sight and tie to your heart when sleeping

At the registration, people were coming in large masses but this time almost all of them were genuine refugees who you could easily tell, some of them empty-handed, miserable and crestfallen.

Some of them had gun shots, visible shrapnel on their bodies and others blood stains bandages.

Three weeks later, we were relocated to Hagadera refugee camp Block-D2 which is part of the larger Dadaab refugee camp.

ALL TYPES OF FOOD!

In the camp, there was all types of food. I still wonder how rich the donors were those days.

In the camp, five-star hotel food was provided to the refugee standards and particularly my mother who was not a refugee but the European Union (EU) will today classify her as 'economic migrant'.

We were given canned meat and beans, rice, spaghetti, wheat flour, oil, sugar, and dates.

Most of the refugees were from countryside, pastoralist and farmers and very few from urban areas.

The biggest challenges was how to prepare some of these food particularly Anjeera, a flat bread that looks like a thin pancake. It's fermented just overnight and is made of wheat flour and a spoon or so of maize flour and water.

Most of the refugees were first confused of all this varieties of food and where to start cooking.

I can name many deaths that occurred as a result of anjeera cooking gone wrong.

MY FATHER VISITED

My father visited us at the camp but never stayed more than a week. We still owned some cattle back home and my dad use to look after them.

Mum was always there for us.

We lived for four years at Dadaab camp before moving to Dadaab town but my mother (in the company of other women), would walk for nine kilometres to Hagadera camp to get their bi-monthly rations of food.

We had moved because of theft and banditry.

My mother still had the WFP ration card enjoying all services offered for the refugees such as monthly rations

They would pay for donkey carts to bring the food to Dadaab town and they would walk back again in groups.

Matatus were expensive for her and she didn't want to sell part of the rations to use as a fare since it was not even enough.

The World Food Programme kept reducing the rations for the refugees until it was no longer enough for a family.

My mother joined other enterprising women to collect firewood using her own back and she would sell the firewood at the market in groups of five twigs going for Sh5.

She would get an average of Sh50 per trip.

BOUGHT A DONKEY

From these savings, she later bought a donkey and started using the donkey to collect firewood. It was a bit more profitable since the donkey could carry a larger bundle of firewood.

She bought food with the profits she made from the firewood and this complemented the cereals that we got from WFP bi-monthly rations.

She took me to Dadaab primary school when I was seven years old and later my sister too. My mother worked hard to buy us school uniform and paid school fees.

Though she was alone, with very little support from my poor dad who lost a good chunk of the cattle to the drought, my mother stood up and filled the gap.

While growing up, we hardly ever saw her. Understandably, she had very little time for us. In the morning, in a group of women, they will go to collect firewood at 5am and she would come back at 7pm after she sold all the firewood.

She would always be too tired to sit down for a chat and she would go to bed early and the cycle would start again in the morning.

This always saddened me.

I joined Dadaab secondary school in 2005 and as a needy and bright student, I got a scholarship from Care International, an NGO based in Dadaab refugee camp. After finishing my High School, I was not able to join university due to lack of fees.

I started working as an interpreter with International organisations for Migrations (IOM) in Dadaab and made enough savings to join University of Nairobi.

My father also sold some cattle and used the money to add to the little I had in paying the school fees.

My heroic mother told us the stories of our childhood sometimes with humour and sometimes with sadness. I hope that my story expresses my gratitude and pride in calling her my mum.

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