Refugee students lead resistance to virus in their camp

Dr Paul O'Keeffe

Kakuma Refugee Camp in north western Kenya often makes headlines for the wrong reasons. As one of the biggest refugee camps in the world, its population expands whenever a new conflict arises in troubled East Africa and refugees flee to the relative safety of neighbouring Kenya.  

Kenya operates an encampment refugee policy, meaning anyone seeking asylum in the country is sent to one of its sprawling camps while they wait out conflicts in their home countries.

As the world’s most pressing crisis beats down its door, the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in Kakuma making a lot less headlines than usual. Fearing the worst-case scenario of spreading the virus to Kakuma’s 190,000+ vulnerable population, the humanitarians that administer in the camp have all but left the refugees alone, confined by a perimeter and curfew while the pandemic rages outside its fortified fence.

At the best of times, Kakuma residents struggle to make ends meet, living cheek by jowl in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, with little or no health care, frequent water shortages and strict food rations. Now that the doors have been bolted, few or no people are coming into the camp and the basic necessities people need to live are not getting in. Water supplies are even more intermittent than before, soap supplies are dwindling and food rations have already been reduced.

InZone – a centre for higher education in refugee contexts at the University of Geneva in Switzerland – has been working in Kakuma for five years, running courses in human rights, ethics, global health and medicine. During this time, we have built a community of learners with the hope of creating a better future in Kakuma, at home, or in third countries. 

We are fortunate to work with outstanding students, who despite all the odds somehow manage to take back a little control over their own lives and do what they can to help themselves and their communities get on. 

With the threat of a coronavirus outbreak looming heavily over the refugees stuck inside the camp and few humanitarian workers in sight, our students have stepped up to provide their communities with the guidance, information and basic necessities that they need during this troubling time.

Students supporting the community

Vijana Twaweza, a youth club set up by one of our students after being inspired by what he learned in class, is leading the way in the camp. The club brings young people from the many different communities in Kakuma together to raise fish and vegetables and teach others about the importance of nutrition, sustainability, respect and cooperation.  

Starting late last year, we presumed the project would follow the traditional pathway of planning, pilot, evaluation, completion. But this stiff academic project management approach has had to be put aside, as our students, their families and communities safety buckle under the strain of an impending coronavirus outbreak. 

With little food to eat and even less food variety, people do not have time for controlled hypotheses or evaluation reports. Hunger and exponential stress are the real control groups now.

Refugee students lead resistance to virus in their camp

 As the food stocks in Kakuma market dwindle, removing the much-needed sustenance that refugees rely upon to substitute their meagre and reduced rations, Vijana Twaweza members have started to harvest their crops and distribute food around their communities. 

Knowing that hand-washing with soap and water (which is in short supply) is their best defence in case coronavirus breaks out in the camp, Vijana Twaweza has also started to fundraise online to buy soap themselves. 

To heighten their efforts at keeping their communities safe, they have also created an information video and a catchy pop song to raise safety awareness and sent these out around the camp over WhatsApp.

Vijana Twaweza is just one project created by a small group of refugees to help their communities. Over the years we have seen time and again that when our students have the resources and support they deserve, they excel just as all students in the world do. Limiting their potential and obstructing their agency through confinement helps no one in the long run.

It’s at times like this that we as academics working in refugee camps need to question more than ever our role working in the contexts in which we do. While we are unable to physically get into Kakuma at the moment (due to precautionary restrictions on traffic in and out of the camp for fear of spreading coronavirus) and rely on communicating online with our students stuck inside, we at least have the power to define our own lives and keep ourselves safer than they can. 

As educators our role does not stop outside of class. We can and must push harder for an end to the injustice of a system that keeps our students confined in dangerous, overcrowded and unhygienic spaces. We must insist that our students have the agency they need to build the kind of successful and safe lives that we all too often take for granted. 

Dr Paul O’Keeffe is a post-doctoral researcher in higher education and emergencies at the University of Geneva’s InZone centre for higher education in fragile contexts.

Article published on the University World News

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