Born and raised as a refugee

Born and raised as a refugee

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Imagine a life confined to 50 km². Imagine everything you know about your homeland coming second-hand through the internet and stories told you by relatives. This is the reality for a generation of young Somalis born and raised in Dadaab refugee camp in northeastern Kenya.

“This is the only place I call home; I don’t know where Somalia is, I’ve never seen it, I’ve only heard of it and when I see images of it I think how lucky I am to be a refugee, because the situation there is so challenging,” says 23 year old Somali refugee, Brownkey Abdullahi Abdi who was born and raised in Dadaab and is an active member of her community; raising awareness around a range of issues affecting Somali girls and women.

Many of those born in the camp have never even seen outside of the camp’s boundaries. “We are living in an open prison. I can’t go back to Somalia and I can’t even go to Garissa [town] nearby. Life is very difficult,” says 30 year old Abdi Aden Bille, one of the founders of an all-male group against female genital mutilation in Dadaab.

Throughout these young refugees lives CARE has been an ever present force. As one of the first NGO working in the camp since 1991, CARE has been a constant feature and support in almost every aspect of young refugee’s life, from schools, to the water they drink and the monthly food rations they receive. “In the camp you find a lot of people called Abdi Care, or Halima Care because they were born here and CARE is the one who feeds them. When we were young we were told the mother is CARE and the father is UNHCR, because they are the ones that help us,” says Brownkey.

For many young Somali boys and girls in Dadaab, Somalia is a thing of myth; created through news reports, glimpses of photos on the internet and the stories told by older generations. As Ibrahim Ali Mohamed who grew up most of his life in Dadaab and now works with CARE as primary school principal says; “my parents would tell me terrible things that would happen there. I have roots there but I don’t feel safe psychologically [to return].”

As Dadaab comes into its 25th year of existence a third generation – the children of the children born in the camp - are now growing up in camp life; where the food they eat is measured out in scoops per family size on a monthly basis and their choice of which school to go to is from among a handful of NGO run institutions in the camp. Many in this situation wonder what their future will hold.  “We don’t know where our life will be in the future. Refugee life is hard, and in Somalia it is not peaceful. I think in 50 years’ time we will remain refugees here in this camp. The cycle will continue – those born here will give birth here too,” says Abdi Aden Bille.

Not only is the future uncertain for many of these ‘Dadaab babies’, but also their present. As funding for the camp reduces cuts and strains across all the camp services are being felt. On top of this are psychological strains of their situation, something their parents and the young generation are both acutely aware of. “[My children] have an unclear identity. Their birth certificates show they’ve never seen Somalia. They’re confused about what identity to take. They’re not Somali, not Kenyan – they’re confused,” says father of three Mohamed Abdi Ahmed.

While some young Dadaab refugees hope to return one day to their fabled homeland, others are uncertain – having no family, land or prospects left in Somalia. For them the most important thing is making sure they get as much and as good an education as possible; it is the key to unlocking opportunities and the tool that will allow them to have a better future, wherever that may be.

As Abdi Aden Bille notes; “now we have education – so many youth have got degrees and some go back to Somalia and get good jobs. The youth here are different to those in Somalia; they have learnt something.”

Despite the numerous challenges, the youth of Dadaab are still hopeful. They are a dynamic generation with big hopes and dreams and they refuse to let their status as refugees restrict them. “I thank CARE a lot – they gave us education; primary and secondary, and now I am someone who can do a lot of things for herself - I have even started my own blog against gender-based violence and practices like cutting in the camp,” says Brownkey.


A view of Dagahaley camp, one of the 5 camps that make up the larger combined refugee camp that is Dadaab. The camp is located in North-Eastern Kenya, on the border to Somalia and around 95.8% of refugees there are Somali. It has a current population of around 350,000 people. In 2016 Dadaab remains the third largest ‘city’ in Kenya, with a population that does not have the right to free movement or to legally work within the country.


Message from a Refugee in Dadaab

Interview with 23 year old Somali refugee girl Brownkey on life in Dadaab refugee camp.