I can still vividly recall that late afternoon in March 2021. I was at my neighbor’s house, Mama Aku’s, with her two children, Aku, who was eight, and Devi, twelve. Having fled the war in my home country, I’d been living in the Kakuma refugee camp for fifteen years alongside thousands of other refugees from across Africa and beyond.
As we sat in front of the television that day, we watched Minister of Defense Dr. Fred Matiangi announce a mandate that was to shake our world. He declared all refugee camps in Kenya were to be closed, issuing a 14-day ultimatum to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to devise a closure plan for the Kakuma and Dadaab camps. Worse still, the Kenyan government threatened to forcibly return refugees to their unstable home countries, branding them the cornerstone of terrorism. “Are all refugees terrorists?” I asked myself. This news sent shockwaves through us all. The room fell eerily silent, as if we were conducting an memorial for our lives as we knew them. Overcome, Mama Aku began to weep.
“Mama, where will we go now?” Aku asked. “Where are they taking us? This is our home, Mama,” said Devi.
Mama Aku could only respond with tears, her arms wrapping Aku and Devi tightly in an embrace.
“I must go now, Mama Aku,” I said quietly, wrestling with my own emotions. “We will meet tomorrow.” I returned to my house, the weight of the announcement pressing heavily on me.
Closing the door behind me felt like sealing off a world I once knew. Exhaustion swept over me; I was too weak to speak, too troubled to eat. All I could do was collapse on the bed and surrender to my tears. As I lay there, my life felt as if it were shattering beneath me. I closed my eyes, and then I felt something a little bit like sleep. It was only the morning rays filtering through the window that woke me up from my despair.
After my morning routine, I sat, still reeling from the announcement. This camp had provided a haven for countless individuals fleeing war, famine, and persecution. People were born here; it was the only home they knew. When I looked at the camp, I saw a vibrant patchwork of makeshift tents and structures, all born out of necessity, filling every possible space. Despite aid organizations’ efforts, conditions remained challenging. Yet this camp was my home. The thought of returning to my war-torn homeland felt like stepping into a lion’s den.
The decision to close the camp came from the blue. It had stood for years as a constant testament to the world’s failure to address displacement’s root causes. Yet government officials had declared it a haven for terrorists, sentencing refugees to a forced return to their countries. The news sparked a whirlwind of emotions. For us refugees, the decision spurred dread and panic. We’d made our lives around the camp, and now it was being ripped away, leaving us in disbelief and despair. Hope dwindled. The camp’s economy faltered as fear held back investment. Tears were shed, prayers raised for UNHCR intervention. Many began selling their belongings to the local community. Our existence became a daily struggle, filled with stress and uncertainty. Yet we clung to the hope that the decision would be overturned, that we could continue to live in the camp. And miraculously, our prayers were answered. The camp burst into celebration, and then our normal lives resumed.
13 June, 2023