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International Women's Day: The auto mechanic of Kakuma refugee camp

Jackiline Amina working in a Kakuma garage in Turkana County. Photo: Jacky Habib

Jackiline Amina working in a Kakuma garage in Turkana County. Photo: Jacky Habib

At the back of a gas station in Kakuma Refugee Camp, there’s a garage with a friendly team of automotive service technicians — including one of the camp’s only women mechanics.

At first glance, Jackiline Amina, clad in army print coveralls, blends in with her male counterparts. But while they do the same work — changing oil, replacing tires, and repairing car batteries — Jackiline is often singled out by customers.

“There is discrimination because sometimes when people bring their cars [for repairs], men say: You can’t do it. I say: I will. I’ll show you that a woman can do it,” Jackiline says.

For the last two years, she has been learning as much as possible about mechanics and ignoring the negative comments directed her way about her choice to do “men’s work.”

“When I began working with men, there was a lot of discouragement.”

“People said: You are a woman, you cannot manage. You are not strong and you are petite.”

Jackiline, 39, who is from Burundi, became a refugee at a young age when her family fled to Tanzania after her father was murdered. Jackiline spent her childhood there and had a family, but decades later, her life was at risk once again. Ethnic tensions in the region forced her to flee to Kenya, where she settled at the Kakuma Refugee Camp in 2013.

The camp and the nearby Kalobeyei refugee settlement, located in northwestern Kenya near the South Sudanese border, are home to 249,000 refugees and asylum-seekers.

With few opportunities, many refugees rely solely on aid distributed by the UN refugee agency UNHCR and humanitarian organizations. CARE, which has been working in Kenya since 1968, supports refugees in the Dadaab Refugee Camp near the southern border with food, water, hygiene, and education.

Some refugees in Kakuma work odd jobs such as washing people’s laundry and helping them fetch water from collection points, as Jackiline did when the father of her youngest child abandoned the family. But between these meager earnings and inadequate food rations, Jackiline says most families still struggle to make ends meet.

“I’ve found it’s a hard life, living in Kenya,” Jackiline said, sharing that she has participated in transactional sex in order to provide for her children.

Temporary structures at the edge of the Dagahaley refugee camp in southern Kenya. Photo: David Mutua / CARE International

Two years ago, Jackiline decided she wanted to learn a new skill, particularly one that would involve, she says, “hard work.”

Initially, she went to a welding workshop and asked the men working there to train her. They refused, saying the work was not appropriate for women. Despite her pleading, they turned Jackiline away.

Next, she thought of going to a garage to work as a mechanic. Shortly after, she found an owner of a small garage who agreed to train her. Jackiline began showing up every day, spending the mornings learning about the technical aspects of the role and the afternoons focused on practical work.

Jackiline, who has never met another woman mechanic, has remained steadfast in her vision despite the criticism.

“People told me a lot of negative things,” she says. “I did not listen. I was focused. I didn’t change my mind. Even though this work is difficult, I’ve decided to do it, and I do it with courage.”

#WomenKnowHow International Women's Day

Now, Jackiline wakes up daily at 4AM to prepare a meal for her children and get them ready for school. She walks thirty minutes to the garage and is often the first person to arrive every day.

While some customers still question her abilities — and while she still faces criticism from community members for doing a “man’s job” — she insists that when she’s at the garage, she is just like one of the guys.

“The men who work here treat me like one of them — and I do work just like them.”

Jackiline wakes up at 4AM every day to get her five children to school, then walks thirty minutes to the garage. Photo: Jacky Habib

While she is learning on the job, Jackiline’s goal is to enroll in an official training program or mechanics school, so she can learn more, and secure a higher-paying job.

“Even though this work is difficult, I’ve decided to do it, and I’m doing it with courage,” she says.

“I want to be an example to other women. Everything is possible. Women can do anything.”

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