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Kenya: We are our brother’s keeper
May 06, 2012

Kenya: We are our brother’s keeper
JRS has been assisting urban refugees in Nairobi since 1991. The Urban Emergency Programme responds to the urgent unmet needs of the new arrivals, asylum seekers and most vulnerable refugees through parishes of the Archdiocese of Nairobi, situated in lower income and slum areas. It helps refugees survive in a situation new to them through provision of food and non-food items, financial and medical assistance, pastoral and psychosocial support. (Peter Balleis, S.J. — Jesuit Refugee Service)
For the refugees in this group, prayers are their source of strength. They have so many needs and hopes, and prayer is a way to attend to those pressing needs through God. I heard prayers for peace in all refugee-producing countries, prayers for the Kenyan elections and prayers for the sick.

(Nairobi) May 7,  2012 – It is always possible to find a beam of hope even when life seems too hard to bear. This is the message I heard from a group of urban refugees who reside in Kitengela, Nairobi. The group members express their compassion for each other by meeting every two weeks for prayers and moral support. They embody the concept of being 'their brother’s keepers.'

Urban shift

With the cost of living becoming unbearable in Nairobi, urban refugees are moving to new areas, further and further from the city center. Located 30 kilometers (about 18.5 miles) from Nairobi, Kitengela is one such location. Benefits of living here include low rent and the availability of jobs at construction sites as the area is developing rapidly. 

However, there are no services here for refugees and so people are forced to travel to Nairobi to access NGO-run facilities in the city. There are also only two government-sponsored schools and refugee children have a long five kilometer (3.1 miles) commute by foot in the mornings. The challenges also affect local people as the area was formerly a pastoralist community, so few public services exist.

Such challenges have nonetheless had the positive benefit of bringing the refugee community together. Last month, I attended a prayer meeting in Kitengela, in which 40 refugees participated. The experience was both humbling and uplifting. Jesuit Refugee Service has been accompanying this group of refugees through pastoral care since June 2011. The passage chosen for the meeting was from John 3: 16 and focused on the love of God for the whole world. Then followed a discussion where group members applied the biblical words to their day-to-day lives.

The power of prayer

For the refugees in this group, prayers are their source of strength. They have so many needs and hopes, and prayer is a way to attend to those pressing needs through God. I heard prayers for peace in all refugee-producing countries, prayers for the Kenyan elections and prayers for the sick.  

After prayers, money is contributed by each member to be saved in a fund for the neediest of the group. Basic items and financial contributions are then allocated to a refugee who is sick. I heard the Chairman report back on how last meeting’s money had been used to visit an elderly woman in hospital. He also announced that she has now fully recovered. To me this was an extraordinary moment. Even in the midst of their challenges, refugees are able to take care of each other.

Kenyan hospitality

Another amazing moment for me was the discovery that in attendance at the meeting were two Kenyan women from the local community. Mary has been attending the prayer meetings regularly and is known affectionately as 'our Mama' (Kishwahili for 'our mother'). That day she had brought along her friend. True to her name, she had brought large bags of beans and maize as a donation for the group. Mary finds great joy in being with the group and this is the only way she can share in their daily challenges. “I do not know how I would survive if I was to find myself in another country as a refugee and therefore I am called to be generous to the refugees” she explained.

At the end of the meeting, the members prayed the Lord’s Prayer (‘Our Father’) whilst holding one another’s hands as a sign of unity. It was a wonderful scene and a sign of hope for both the refugees and the local community.

by Irene Waweru, Project Director, Nairobi, Kenya


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Learn more about Jesuit Refugee Service programs for urban refugees here

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