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Displacing People so that We Forget

The Turkana Desert

South of the South Sudanese border, in the sub-Saharan north of Kenya, is the Kakuma refugee camp. A home to more than 150,000 people, Kakuma is located in an area so remote that it almost seems intentional: away from the cities, away from the tourists, away from the big game national parks, away from the ocean or trees or rivers, away from water or natural resources. Away from our memories.

Refugees live here: they came from Sudan and South Sudan, from Rwanda and Ethiopia and from Somalia escaping collapsed governments, warfare, and genocide. They were something else in their former life: professionals, students, farmers, tribal leaders, parents, grandparents, and somebody's loved one.

Most arrived having experienced trauma and loss of family. Most witnessed horrific things. None of it deserved, none of it reparable, and nothing more they could do but flee. They left home without money, food, water, a map, or identification. Many would not survive their flight from home; others would be trapped by people taking advantage of them; the lucky ones would make it to Kakuma.

The loss of status is literal and figurative. They lose legal status as a stateless person. They have no rights, they do not know the new language, and they do not know the rules of the game. In their vulnerability, such a loss of rights further impedes their ability to survive. But the figurative losses are greater: they've lost their identity. Who are they? What they were is cut away, and in their new world they are forced to take on new roles.

Refugees are displaced persons; this is true. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNCHR) oversees the refugee camps and international refugee protections globally. Not all refugees are in camps; in fact, most are not. Most are in urban areas, without the protection of a refugee camp. The figures are staggering: 65 million forcibly displaced persons currently. 21.3 million are refugees living outside their home country. 5 million refugees have fled Syria alone.

But the numbers don't tell the stories of the young man who started a primary school for adults so that they could get an education and not have to be in classes with young children or of the higher education students at JWL who walk 7 kilometers to the learning center in order to take college classes. They don't tell the stories of the entrepreneurs in the camp starting convenience stores and restaurants and computing centers and taxi services.

I want to tell you these stories. I want them to have a place in your heart, even if governments displace them in policy. They may be cast out to the deserts, but they are vibrant and real in our minds and in our actions. Society may turn them away; we will not.


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