*Pseudo name used.
Kakuma in Kenya, a barren plain of dust, makeshift homes and fragile glimpses of hope. It was 2007 when Wilhelm first stepped foot into the refugee camp at age 15. The bus arrived at the reception building to their new home, only on arrival, they realised that the idea of home, would be a metaphorical concept as there was no structure to represent this. They would have to build it.
'Throughout the process these people lost their identity, they become reduced to a title, they were no longer recognised by their own uniqueness'
But the story doesn’t start here, we need to step back to the beginning, or at least the beginning of the horror. Wilhelm lived between Uvira and Bukavu growing up where the sound of gun fights on the streets became a regular occurrence. Rebel groups often arrived in attempt to take control of the city and each time, the environment would become a war-zone. A place of permeating fear, a place to flee.
Wilhelm recalled two particular occasions (in 1997) that remained clearly forged in his memory. During the times of rebel invasions, it was safest to leave the city. Wilhelm remembered the experience of when he and his brothers walked for two days in search of refuge in the villages and another when they were forced to live in a cave for a week or two, surviving off wild vegetables alone. The ordeal didn’t end there, Wilhelm remembered seeing dead bodies on the sides of the road as they returned to their home in the city, despite the fact that his older brother attempted to shield his view. A ghastly reminder of the reality.
People who remained in the cities during these times, risked a great deal of danger, particularly young males. The rebel fighters were constantly recruiting, or more specifically, taking young boys away from there families, destroying any chance of reconnection with their homes and training them to fight. Wilhelm's older brothers often shaved off their facial hair, wore lipstick, dresses and pretended to have longer hair just to avoid being taken. They had to live day to day with this fear.
It was far from an ideal lifestyle, they would go to sleep with plans for the next day and wake up to war, soldiers on the streets, a neighbour shot. They had to leave and when it was time, they could only afford for the three girls and the two youngest brothers to go, Wilhelm being one of them. They travelled in the back of trucks and also paid individuals money to get them over the boarder the back way. They passed three boarders in total, Rwanda, Uganda and finally into Kenya.
Then there was Kakuma, their new and safe home amongst thousands of fellow escapees. Homes as far as the eye could see constructed purely out of mud and not one resident builder. Wilhelm and his siblings would soon be responsible for building their own shelter, a project that would take some time. They would have to get used to sleeping outside.
Although things seemed to be turning in the right direction, there was more beneath the surface. Throughout the process these people lost their identity, they become reduced to a title, they were no longer recognised by their own uniqueness. Wilhelm, a young Congolese boy, became a ‘refugee’, identified simply by his ‘papers’, a term he would soon begin to learn about. I suppose this is just a byproduct of the system, but a costly one at that. With an eye towards the silver lining however, an opportunity to rebuild this would always remain present.
Kakuma felt like a prison, restricted by boundaries, void of personal space and certainly no thoughts about saving money or of nice food. A day in the camp for Wilhelm consisted of fetching water, sitting, talking and dreaming with others. The ‘collective’ seemed to be the thing that pulled each of them through the restrictions in which they were experiencing. Along with their dreams, they would discuss positives, hopes and what they would do when they finally left the camp.
An interesting practice was for each person to have their own saying that they resonated with and to write it on the back of their door in their home. For Wilhelm, his was ‘h20’. There were no rules for what your ‘slogan’ should be, but generally it was something that motivated you, kept you going and make you happy. One slogan that stuck with Wilhelm was from an older guy and it was simply ‘one day’. Wilhelm explained that he would often say that things would be better ‘one day’, he was not sure when, but ‘one day’.
This seemed to be one of the hardest parts of being there, having faith that things would be better in the future. Especially for those who had been in the camp for over 20 years. Fortunately however, some did make it out for a fresh start in other countries. For Wilhelm, his sister had got married in the camp and her husband managed to get sponsorship to Australia. It was here that they would start again as a family, with their own set of new struggles, such as learning English and getting used to a Westernised lifestyle.
At the end of our catch up, Wilhelm sat with his regular smile and thanked me for the opportunity to tell his story. He explained that he just wanted to help others using his story and that his experience had made him very grateful. In leaving he shared lessons that he had learnt over his time of hardship:
See the positives as you work hard
Just because something is the way it is now, doesn’t mean it will be the same later
If you give up, you accept that things can’t change
Anything you receive is a bonus
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