The following is a guest post from my friend Maria, and focuses on her experience living and working in Kakuma, Kenya where the Kakuma Refugee Camp is located. This camp is located in the Turkana District of the northwestern region of Kenya and is home to over 180,000 refugees originating from several countries, including South Sudan, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Rwanda.

Thousands of refugees living in the camp have been there since it opened in the early 1990s, following conflict in Sudan. In fact, the book The Lost Boys of Sudan reflects the lives of over 20,000 young boys displaced and/or orphaned during the Second Sudanese Civil War (1983-2005). After traveling on foot for thousands of miles, many of these young boys reached the area that eventually became the Kakuma Refugee Camp.

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Maria and I were both involved in the same service-learning research program developed by Virginia Tech University, and our professor, Dr. Brett Shadle in 2012. Maria and I worked on different research projects for the Lutheran World Federation – the organization we worked with while there. She researched education issues within the camp, while I developed a report examining FGM among Somali communities and offered (to the best of my ability as a Junior in college) policy suggestions for intervention.

It was an emotional experience, literally filled with every emotion – happiness, sadness, fear, anxiety, love, comfort, hope – #allthefeels. Due to the recent media frenzy regarding refugees arriving in Europe, particularly from Northern Africa and the Levant region, there are many discussions of “refugees” and who they are. Well, they’re people. Like you and me. Just looking for opportunity, life and hope.

Cue Maria’s post:

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I’m white. Not like white white, more like an olive white. But white nonetheless. And when plopped into a refugee camp in northwestern Kenya, I might as well be white white. Actually, I might as well be “purple.”

The refugee camp I’m talking about is Kakuma—located in Northeastern Kenya. Kakuma is home to more than 180,000 displaced people from all over eastern and central Africa. And I realize the irony, that it was this place Victoria and I chose to call home for about a month.

I remember when we first stepped onto the camp grounds. I was extremely nauseous after a flight from Nairobi to Kakuma that the United Nations chartered every few days. But as soon as I got off the flight, something else hit me. A new form of nausea. The plane was unloading on this tiny dirt landing strip. There was a chain link fence to differentiate where the “airport” began and ended, and adorning the chain link fence were people watching the planes unload. And then it hit me. The people watching me were refugees.

I’ve learned to use the term “refugee” infrequently. Not because someone told me it was wrong – in fact, no one has ever batted an eye at the word – but because to me, this word attempts to boil down many different types of people and it is packed with meaning. To many the term refugee means someone who is hopeless, helpless, and living off of the assistance, kindness and charity of others.

To me, the term refugee symbolizes strength, perseverance, and everything amazing about a human being.

Anyways, back to the airport.

The uneasiness in my stomach was not due to fear, insecurity, or the turbulent plane ride. The nausea came when my bag was unloaded off of the plane. The bag, basically bulging at the seams, contained more contents than what many of the people waiting to greet us at the fence owned. And I was only going to be here for 4 weeks. I almost felt as if my white skin only grew whiter.

I’ve always struggled with my skin color. I know that might sound strange coming from a while girl, and trust me, I do see the luxury of being a middle class white girl living in America. I truly feel blessed, don’t get me wrong. But I want to be able to drink deeply from the waters of vibrant cultures all over the world and unfortunately, my skin inhibits me from doing so. I cannot begin to claim the sentiment that I understand what it must be like to be a refugee in Africa, or really a person of any other culture outside of the West. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to know.

In Kakuma, I did the best I could to submerge myself in the life of the camp. I went to church, taught at a school, shopped at the markets, drank the local beer…I know I couldn’t ever fully understand—my skin would only let me get so close to grasping at the roots of understanding. After all, I still had to go to my guarded compound at 5pm, I had three meals provided to me and I slept on a (fairly) comfortable bed. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t take every opportunity I could to see, witness and learn more about the experiences of refugees in the camp.

I witnessed the strength of the human spirit. Before this trip to Kakuma, I had experienced, first hand, large amounts of poverty, pain and injustice. But there is nothing that compares to looking someone in the eyes and knowing that they are there because they were fleeing for their lives. For many of them, there were people hunting them down, trying to kill them; children lost parents along the way, people had to leave everything they ever knew just in the name of safety. The living conditions in the camp are sub-par, people struggle to find things to fill their vacant time and many will tell you that life, plainly, sucks.

But refugees are the embodiment of the strength of the human race. They keep on pushing and persevering. They keep hope alive and burning. They continually aspire for greater things.

Refugees are power.

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Women from the Congolese community in the camp, greeted us with songs and dance.
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A young boy watches on as the adults continue to greet us and ask us to join them in their celebration.

Maria’s mention of the weight the term “refugee” contains is very relevant today, as we’ve heard this word so often it seems to have lost meaning. Like she says, this term is usually placed onto a people in order to categorize them. A categorization that is predominately negative. When you hear the term refugee, what do you think? Do you think they are helpless? Hopeless? I want you to challenge that.

Maria ends with the statement, “Refugees are power.” I completely agree. Refugees, whether you like the term or not, offer the world a glimpse of the power the human spirit possesses when it is pushed to its ultimate limit. We all have that power, and that strength. It doesn’t matter what ethnicity you are or what culture and religion you follow. However, we can’t undermine the fact that only they have had to live experiences that test them to such an extent. They should be respected, not coddled, neglected or condemned.

We could all be in their place.

So here is to standing in solidarity with all of the displaced people in the world – all of the “refugees” – all of those who are forced to flee for their safety. Stay strong, stay powerful.

If you would like to help provide for those living in refugee camps, go here or contact your local refugee housing service to help resettle newly arrived refugees in your city. Finally, educating yourself and talking sensibly about these issues, is also just as helpful.

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I was once a refugee and when you are a refugee you have absolutely nothing. Refugees are often stigmatized yet anyone can be a refugee. Refugees do not want handouts. They want tools, they want to be empowered so that they can take control of their own destiny. Refugees are dignified people.

Alek Wek, a supermodel and fomer Sudanese refugee, in an issue of Forbes Africa

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