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Thursday, January 1, 2015

What it's like to live like a refugee - Winnipeg Free Press

What it's like to live like a refugee - Winnipeg Free Press

This year, I went from sitting at a desk in an air-conditioned newsroom writing about refugees to sitting across from them in their hut made of sticks in the world's largest refugee camp.
The story didn't just move me -- it shook me up, big time.
I visited Dadaab, Kenya, near the border of Somalia and home to 350,000 refugees in a cluster of five camps run by the UNHCR, the UN's refugee agency.
I went there to meet residents waiting to join relatives in Winnipeg. The trip was paid for by the Free Press and made possible by a Winnipeg man who runs the entire operation for the UN.
After more than a decade of writing immigration and refugee stories, I needed to see for myself where so many people I've interviewed come from.
I've never felt so overprivileged and overwhelmed.
In Dadaab, the vast majority are Somalis who are trapped. They can't go home to Somalia because it's not safe. They can't stay where they are because they have no status in Kenya and the government won't allow them to build permanent homes. Some folks have been living there for nearly two decades since they fled the civil war in Somalia. With amazing patience and resilience, they've tried to carve out a normal life in the dusty, remote and crowded camps. The UN and aid agencies offer health and limited educational opportunities. But there's no clear way out or place to go -- even if they have loved ones in Winnipeg who are ready and willing to sponsor them.
Like Hassan Mohamed Abdi. The English-speaking 30-year-old is the headmaster at the local primary school. A brilliant student who arrived in Dadaab in 1992 with illiterate parents, Hassan won a rare scholarship to university to attend teachers college. When I visited his home, he was hospitably trying to hide his exhaustion. His wife, Farah, had given birth to their son three days earlier, and their oldest, a three-year-old girl, has cerebral palsy, convulsions and cries because she is in constant pain.
"There's a lot of challenges -- security problems. We don't sleep here," said Hassan.
There have been bombings, attacks, rapes and abductions.
People are scared, he said, and they feel trapped.
His uncle can't sponsor him and his family to come to Canada because of the cap on new refugee sponsorships the government imposed in its efforts to deal with a backlog of applications.
"It's impossible for us to go back to Somalia. Government officials there are killed every day. Here in Kenya, we can't get out. We're not allowed to live (outside the refugee camp) in Kenya."
With conflict growing in parts of Africa and the Middle East, more people are fleeing war, violence and persecution than ever before, the UNHCR said this month.
It expects to help 43 million forcibly displaced or stateless people worldwide next year. That's more than the population of Canada from what would be a tiny fraction of its land mass.
Yet, Canada is focusing on economic immigrants rather than welcoming more trapped people such as Hassan.
I've been back from Dadaab seven months. I'm still rattled.
carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

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