Somali Refugees Fill Camp in Kenya

The latest eruption of political violence in Somalia creates crowds at the Dadaab refugee camp in northeastern Kenya. Every day, hundreds of Somalis stream across the border to flee conflict in their homeland.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary. Coming up, how being first on the ballot can win the election.

But first, in Somalia the likelihood of another civil war seems more real than ever. Tens of thousands of refugees have already left and are seeking safe harbor with humanitarian groups in neighboring countries. More are sure to follow.

For many Somalis who have been living across the border, their homeland is a distant memory. Or in more and more instances, anything but home. NPR's Gwen Thompkins has this report from northern Kenya.

GWEN THOMPKINS: Hawol Nagasha Stefanos(ph) is a Somali mother of three who lives in the Dadaab refugee camp. She's 36 years old and came to northeastern Kenya when Somalia's government collapsed in 1991. After 15 years here, she still thinks about her hometown Kismaayo(ph) in southern Somalia and how the Indian Ocean once felt on her skin.

Ms. HAWOL NAGASHA STEFANOS (Somali Refugee): I really like living in Kismaayo. We used to swim in Indian Ocean beach. Kismaayo is a beach town, and also it has a very big land for farming. The life of Kismaayo was very gracious with me.

THOMPKINS: Dadaab could not be anymore different. Dadaab is remote and landlocked, a place where life is scratched out on a dry, flat, harsh terrain of acacia trees and thorn bushes surrounded by razor wire. Where the sun beats down like a thump of a drum and where there's the kind of dust that sent Midwesterners to California during the Great Depression.

Ms. STEFANOS: Here what we have only it is peace and education. Nothing else.

THOMPKINS: Upwards of 130,000 refugees live in three camps at Dadaab and have been squatting there for almost a generation. Another 30,000 arrived this year when the Islamic Courts Union took over much of southern Somalia in the capital, Mogadishu.

Refugee camps are full of people who've lost more than they ever thought they could bear. There are places where memories are the only valuables to be had and the people here will share just a few.

Dixon Adon Alewi(ph) is a tall, sweet man of 65 with skin the color of a Hershey's Kiss. He's the headmaster of the primary school here called Friends. He's both a refugee and a teacher from northern Uganda. One day in 1987, Alewi saw 420 people massacred in his village. It was time to go. Now he misses a home cooked meal.

Mr. DIXON ADON ALEWI (Somali Refugee): Our main food is (unintelligible), millet, (unintelligible) nuts, peanuts. That's my favorite. That's the one when I eat I feel that I have eaten something. So I wish this thing could be brought to me in the camp.

THOMPKINS: Alewi says that at the Friends School they teach children to want to go back to their homeland to make them better.

Mr. ALEWI: Here is the place where you have to learn. And the good thing you are going to learn from this country is what you will go back with it back to your home country. So that's what always me as I'm elder to them have to tell them, you know, that they're not to forget to go back home.

THOMPKINS: But for the thousands of young people in the camp, Somalia is nothing more than a word. Home is the dome-shaped huts made of sticks and stones here in Dadaab. The structures are not unlike the nests of the storks that live around them, tuxedoed scavengers with black wings and heavy white bodies, their stick-like legs making them as tall as parking meters.

(Soundbite of splashing)

THOMPKINS: On this day, rainwater has gathered in brown muddy pools along the road. Life here suits Mohammed(ph) just fine. He's a 12-year-old Somali boy who's tiny for his age but full of spit. Mohammed was born in Somalia on the border with Kenya, but since then he's never been away from the Efol(ph) camp. Not once. When asked if he knew anything about Somalia or had heard anything about Somalia or even wanted to ever visit Somalia, he shook his head.

MOHAMMED (Somali Refugee): No.

THOMPKINS: Not when there's so much fun to be had dive-bombing into the water. Ditto Mohammed's friends and their friends and their friends too.

(Soundbite of child playing)

Mr. JEFF WORDLEY(ph) (United Nations Emergency Taskforce in Somalia): There will always be some people who say they don't actually want to go back.

THOMPKINS: Jeff Wordley heads the United Nations emergency taskforce that's handling the new wave of refugees to Dadaab.

Mr. WORDLEY: These people, perhaps we would look at another solution which would involve perhaps local integration in the local community.

THOMPKINS: But Dadaab is an area of Kenya that is populated by Kenyans who are as poor, if not poorer, than the refugees. Some of them pose as refugees and try to sneak past the U.N. and aid groups. Perhaps the best way to figure out who is a genuine refugee is to ask someone to share a memory of home.

Ask Aden Adi Mohammed(ph), for instance. He's 70 years old. Ask him if he ever thinks about home.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ADEN ADI MOHAMMED (Somali Refugee): (Through translator) Not even a day (unintelligible) I dream about Somalia. Even day and night.

THOMPKINS: He's probably the real thing.

Gwen Thompkins, NPR News, Dadaab, Kenya.

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