In world’s largest refugee camp, life goes on

October 17th, 2009 - 3:17 pm ICT by IANS  

By Michael Logan
Dadaab (Kenya), Oct 17 (DPA) Shueb Mohamed Hassan stands beneath a shady tree, alternating between chatting with his friend, fiddling with his mobile phone and sneaking glances at two girls seated nearby.

He is a typical young man, except that Shueb, 25, is a resident of the world’s largest refugee camp, the Dadaab complex in the arid plains of eastern Kenya.

Dadaab’s three camps - Ifo, Hagadera and Dagahaley - were built in the early 1990s to accommodate 90,000 refugees. However, unending conflict in Somalia has forced the UN refugee agency, or UNHCR, to keep cramming in more people.

Up to 500 Somalis arrive each day, fleeing a bloody Islamist insurgency that has killed more than 18,000 people since early 2007.

Now, almost 300,000 people, the majority of them Somalis, live in the complex, which the aid agency Oxfam recently condemned as being overcrowded and barely fit for human habitation and having growing water shortages.

But it is the only home Shueb has ever really known.

When dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was ousted in 1991, it was the start of a long nightmare for Somalia. Conflicts between clans and warlords looking to carve out their own fiefdoms swiftly broke out across the country.

Shueb’s father kept his family safe for as long as he could, but the day soon came when they had to flee. Shueb was only 7, but his memories of that time are still clear.

“I remember running,” he says. “Early in the morning, we were attacked by Hawiye clan militia. Some neighbours were shot down in front of me. I had never seen a dead person.”

Shueb’s father decided to take him and his two sisters to neighbouring Kenya. At first they lived in a smaller camp, but in 1994, they came to Dadaab for the first time. Shueb had no idea they would still be there 15 years later.

His formative years were spent running dusty pathways between the ever-growing clusters of tents and huts and studying at Dagahaley school, where he earned seven O Levels. His two brothers were born in the complex.

Shueb is typical of many of Dadaab’s residents, who, despite difficult conditions, are getting on with their lives.

“There are some problems in the camp,” he says with a shrug. “But life is OK.”

People raise their children, hang up their washing on thorn bushes outside the tents and huts, gossip and laugh with neighbours, and hustle to make some extra cash.

The refugees are given allowances of food and water, but they are not allowed to work or leave the camps without permission. With such a large concentration of industrious Somalis, a people with a keen eye for business, commerce was always bound to bubble up.

Each of the camps has a bustling market where you can buy anything from camel meat to electronics and English Premier League football tops. There also places to chew miraa, a mild narcotic leaf popular among Somalis.

Goods are brought in from the nearby town of Garissa, and while most of the market stalls are owned by ethnic Somalis living in the area, the employees are refugees.

The camp’s residents earn money through a variety of means to buy life’s little luxuries from the market.

“Some people sell their rations from UNHCR to buy other goods,” says Marin Mohamed Aden, 23, a stall keeper in Ifo. “Some go to work as servants; others build houses for money.”

Those with well-off relatives abroad receive money through an honour-based money-transfer system known as hawala.

Shueb makes his extra money, which amounts to a few dollars a day, interpreting for new arrivals as they register with the UN refugee agency.

In his spare time, he plays football, goes to youth clubs, and attends training sessions on gender equality and peace building.

Life goes on, but Shueb still dreams of escape and a scholarship in a developed country.

“I want to go to the US, but we were rejected in April,” he says.

“I would like to try for Canada or Australia. I will go anywhere that offers a better life.”

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