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On Assignment in Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Fr. Kenneth J. Gavin, S.J., the Regional Director of Jesuit Refugee Service/USA, recently returned from a visit to several JRS teams in South Sudan and Kenya. Fr. Gavin wrote this reflection on the Kakuma camp.


During this Lenten Season I have discovered hope in my life through the longing for hope that I have seen in the eyes of the refugees whom I met recently in Kakuma Refugee Camp in northwestern Kenya. 


Kakuma is located in a barren, desert-like setting 620 miles from Nairobi but only 60 miles from the Sudanese border. Daily temperatures soar over 100° F and sandstorms, covering man and beast in a layer of dust, make life uncomfortable.


Kakuma was first opened in 1992 and continues to this day to be home for thousands of refugee families. On my recent visit to our JRS projects there I mentioned to a staff member how surprised I was at the camp’s well-developed organizational and administrative structure. The JRS team member replied, "Yes, it’s a little New York, with over 50,000 refugees from eleven different African nationalities!"


Refugees from Sudan, Somalia and Ethiopia currently make up the majority of refugees in the camp. They represent ordinary families who have been forced from their home countries by violence and persecution. 


The JRS team in Kakuma knows first-hand how war and displacement can affect people and their capacity for self-reliance. The refugees of Kakuma have often experienced tremendous suffering and end up at the camp having lost homes, livelihood, and even family members. Frequently they have no idea how to start up their lives again. Many are confused and traumatized.



Since refugees are not able to acquire gainful employment, they have great difficulty supporting themselves. While their basic needs are met by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), what they receive is often barely adequate.  Life is often constrained at Kakuma with few opportunities to plan for the future or even move beyond the gates of the camp. 


A twenty-year old South Sudanese student poignantly described his situation to me in these words: "I have lived at Kakuma since I was five years old, and I have never traveled farther than the UNHCR airstrip just five minutes outside the camp."


One of the main focuses of JRS’s work at Kakuma is responding to psychosocial needs of those who are most vulnerable and face the greatest challenges from the harsh experience of displacement and the living conditions in the camp.


I was deeply impressed by JRS’s comprehensive counseling and social service programs that includes training for refugees in basic counseling skills, alternative healing through massage and reflexology to help refugees cope with emotional and stress-related illnesses, a professional socio-educational program for children with disabilities and special needs, and a Safe Haven program that provides refugee women and children who are victims of sexual and gender based violence with protection and support.


In response to the harsh reality of camp life at Kakuma, JRS has turned its psychosocial program sites into oases of tranquility. Patients who enter the Alternative Healing compound find that its cooling trees and restful plants and benches creates a climate of peace and relaxation at odds with the heat and noise of the surrounding camp. 


The JRS team at Kakuma believes this atmosphere is part of the healing that many refugees receive through our programs there. JRS is a sign and a source of hope for many refugees at Kakuma.


This is the hope that the prophet Jeremiah spoke of long ago, a hope that is “like a tree planted beside the waters that stretches out its roots to the stream.  It fears not the heat when it comes, its leaves stay green. In the year of drought it shows no distress, but still bears fruit.”


In response to the harsh reality of camp life for refugees at Kakuma, Jesuit Refugee Service has turned its psychosocial program sites into oases of tranquility. Patients who enter the Alternative Healing compound find that its cooling trees and restful plants and benches creates a climate of peace and relaxation at odds with the heat and noise of the surrounding camp. The JRS team at Kakuma believes this atmosphere is part of the healing that many refugees receive through our programs there.