Whenever there is violence families are forced to flee and start a new life elsewhere. On June 20th every year the UN marks World Refugee Day to commemorate the strength, courage, and perseverance of millions of refugees. Have you ever thought about what a day in a refugee’s life might feel like? Here are some experiences South Sudanese refugees living in Kenya have gone through and how they have shaped their lives.
“I came to Kenya when I was around five years old and I have lived most of my life at Kakuma Refugee Camp. I was registered as a rural refugee until when I decided to move to Nairobi for school. I recently lost my documents as I was in the process of transitioning to an Urban Refugee. I have been living on the edge of worry that I will be arrested. I need to find a way to transfer my status to an Urban Refugee so that I am not arrested. Recently, I was walking in town and I spotted two police officers walking towards me. I froze, I couldn’t move, I just stood there in the middle of the street, the only thing I could do was pretend to talk on my phone, luckily the officers just moved past me. My refugee status is still active but without the right documents, I risk jail time and worst case scenario being deported. I love the Kenyan people, they are very friendly. Most of them will not fight you but they have a way with words, if you wrong them they will tell you to your face that you have offended them and you need to fix it. There is a sense of security for me here as I don’t expect anyone to punch me over matters we can talk over.”
“I am a student at Kenyatta University, my uncle pays for my school fees. I was born at Kakuma Refugee Camp. When school is off I go back home – Kakuma is home to me. I don’t know anyone anywhere else. I have refugee status but I often wonder what will happen after I finish University. Will I get a job with my status? I love being in university but I wonder what if I don’t get a way to make an income? If I go to South Sudan where would I start? I have never set foot outside Kenya.”
“My first home was Kakuma refugee camp. I was born there and I only left after high school. I didn’t even think about how beautiful cities look. I really enjoy living in Nairobi now with traffic and all, there is life here. You can taste it in the haste in which people move, the traffic gridlocks remind you of the existence of humans, young kids going to school and coming home in the evening remind you of continuity. Life is twenty-four hours in this city, rain or sunshine – people are moving. I have been trying to enroll in college, I have actually enrolled in several colleges, but I haven’t been able to complete even a semester because of lack of funds. Most refugees are able to complete education up to high school but they cannot join university because. Unless the UN sponsors your studies – at least in my case – you just stop at high school. My parents and siblings still live at Kakuma and they have no money to take me to university. I have been able to do a lot with high school education, but I would like to join the university.”
“I was born in Kenya, I have lived here all my life. The one thing I hate about this is that I have lived here all my life but I cannot legally do anything. I have no home here yet I was born here over twenty years ago. I feel like authorities should be considerate with children born in the countries their parents sought refuge in. My mannerisms are Kenyan, I speak Kiswahili, and I even understand a little Kikuyu because I have so many Kikuyu neighbors. Every time I visit home I am jeered at and told, go back to my country, my country, in this case, being Kenya which I don’t even have residency despite being born here. Back home – to me, home is South Sudan but we are referred to as the people from the land of “wewe” that is Kiswahili for “you”. I am lost half the time. This one time before my parents renewed my temporary residency permit I would not go to town, I would not go to school because I have heard stories of how my friends have been harassed by police. And I am the spitting image of a South Sudanese. Tall, slender and dark-skinned, so everywhere I walk I am clutching at my documents.”
“I was also born here and one thing that I love about Kenyan’s is their work diligence. Kenyans are the hardest working people I have met and I have met many nationalities. It is one of the things I hope I have picked up. I studied in the US but after I finished I came back home – home to me is Kenya. I get very teary every time I travel and when I come back I must pay the visa fees yet I know no other home. I have been to South Sudan but I don’t feel welcome because I am referred to as a Kenyan, I have introduced myself as a Kenyan on occasion. I cannot speak my mother tongue and I struggle to understand it but I am learning it now because I want to go back to South Sudan. It is home. As much as I feel at home in Kenya there is a longing I have about South Sudan and I am going to relocate to the land of my ancestors. I have not been granted citizenship in Kenya and I don’t see that ever happening so I want to make a life for myself in South Sudan. I don’t want to have to explain myself to anyone why I can speak Kiswahili so well yet I am not Kenyan.”
“My friends and I recently took a cab to a friend’s house and we happened to have to catch up on a meeting in the cab. After we finished we started engaging the driver and he told us that we are too smart and beautiful to be South Sudanese. What does that even mean? My brother was recently detained for a day because he had forgotten his documents at home and there was no one he could reach to take the documents to him. He is in Kenya legally but he forgot to carry his documents, I have been scared since then because it suddenly felt to me that if you look a certain way the authorities will sniff you out. The Kenyan general public is amazing but I am not certain about the authorities. Maybe it is all over the world but I do not like anyone in uniform because it feels like they will try to look for misdemeanors even when there are none.
“I was born in the Central African Republic. My family moved to Congo then Kenya and I have lived here since I was around ten years. I don’t look South Sudanese so I struggle with identity so much, where do I belong, which country do I belong? Whom do I identify with? Whenever I meet new South Sudanese people I have to show my passport to prove that I am actually South Sudanese. I sometimes have to talk in Zande – my local language – to prove that I am South Sudanese. I enjoy living in Kenya though and especially amongst my Kenyan friends, here no-one bothers with where you come from on a daily basis. I do not have to answer a barrage of questions about who I am. When I visit my parents and we are hanging out with friends I must always prove that I am South Sudanese.”
As earlier denoted World Refugee Day is celebrated once a year but every day we should endeavor to make the lives of those who live amongst us as refugees richer and more fulfilling. But why should one have to live this way: As a refugee where do you belong? Whom do you identify with, the country you currently live in as a refugee or your “home” country? Isn’t it then very illogical that a refugee cannot call “Kenya” home yet they have known no other home? Isn’t that a burden too heavy to carry to live on the edge of such uncertainty?
*All the names have been changed to protect the identities of the interviewees.