She walked nearly 300 miles to get herself and her two children to a refugee camp in a not too distant land that merely tolerates her presence. On the journey she was raped and she witnessed the murder of her husband by Al-Shabaab – the terrorist organization threatening the region known as the Horn of Africa. When I saw her – all you could see was relief – she had made it and now she needed to sort out her future and the future of her boys – ages 5 and 8. Hers is one story of a collection of stories that arrive daily in this small and remote town of Eastern Kenya. For nearly 20 years, refugees have poured across the border seeking refuge in a camp that has the capacity of holding 90,000 people. Today, the Dadaab area has grown to nearly 450,000 refugees and now there are plans to expand to five separate camps. Approximately 1,500 new people arrive each day.
Nobody in Kenya likes to talk about this expansion because they fear the camps will become permanent settlements. Complicating this reality is the political situation in Somalia, the regional drought and the subsequent famine affecting 12 million souls – and the Kenyan government would rather see the refugees return to their homes in Somalia. Today if possible! Yet, the economic conditions and the drought in this area of Kenya also drive Kenyans to the camps because they can receive services they do not receive in their villages and communities. It is better to be treated as a refugee than neglected as a Kenyan.
Defining or categorizing groups of people is complicated: A neglected Kenyan, Somalian Refugee, Somilian Ethiopian and Ethiopian Refugee. Each person above the age of 5 is finger printed and has an identity card that classifies him/her so the host agencies and governments know their gender, age and place of origin. Each family unit is given a two minute call home to assure family and relatives they made it safely. What is common here is displacement. Not just the refugees, but the individuals and families living in the host communities. The wandering, nomadic existence defies any sense of permanence. Nothing to hold on to – no anchor – no foundation. The standard dictionary definition of displaced is, persons who lack a home, as through political exile, destruction of their previous shelter, or lack of financial resources (usually preceded by the ): After the earthquake, the displaced were temporarily housed in armories.
What this definition does not capture is that many of these displaced individuals left their pastoral lands, homesteads and villages because there was no food, no water and their livelihood simply evaporated in the desert heat. They simply collected what they could carry and started walking.
As long as there are people displaced in this manner – perhaps we should all feel a sense of displacement. Sitting in my flat in Nairobi and reading Facebook posts and watching the drama around earthquakes in Washington, hurricanes in the Atlantic and economic stress in my home country, there is a disconnect that gives me a feeling of displacement. I have shelter, water, food and I have resources to replenish them. Yet, my soul will not now allow me to settle into these comforts or these realities. I have been a witness to a human suffering that has shattered my sense of permanence. May I never forget.
Right now, I am doing everything I know how to do to mobilize resources (human and financial) to respond appropriately to this crisis. I am containing my anger, turning my empathy and my intellect into a vehicle for meaningful action in a chaotic world. The inescapable stench of death and hunger envelopes your senses. While I have seen these scenes before and I am a somewhat seasoned and aging veteran of these crises, I am losing patience with a world so indifferent that they can stand by and allow 12 million of God’s souls to walk aimlessly through the desert.
Our biggest fear with media absorbed images of famines is that we might somehow still feel the pain of someone else’s suffering or displacement. God Forbid!
I will return to my home soon – but it will not be with a sense of permanence – but one of displacement. Nothing compared with the displacement of my sister and her two children described above. If I am to walk along side her in her journey, I must be prepared to surrender my own identity, and somehow with her, take on the pain and isolation that is her brokenness. Maybe then, we can both be healed. I think that is, in part, what is meant by incarnational living.
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