DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The world's largest refugee camp is also a giant social experiment. It's where hundreds of thousands of Somalis fleeing a war have been sheltered for 24 years. The camp is located in Kenya and run by the United Nations. The Kenyan government wants the experiment to end soon. It's pushing the refugees to return home to Somalia. But as NPR's Gregory Warner reports, the camp called Dadaab is the only home many have known.
GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: When at the age of 6, Habiba Abdurahman fled a war in Somalia with her mother and sister, she ended up leaving a village governed by Somali cultural traditions for a camp overseen by the United Nations, a village where girls rarely went to school for a camp where international organizations offered girls extra tutoring, a village where female genital mutilation was common for a camp where FGM was not only illegal but constantly messaged against.
HABIBA ABDURAHMAN: When I was arriving in Dadaab, the community was not aware of what FGM is. But the generation of today, they're well-educated and they understand everything.
WARNER: And she thrived in this environment. At age 27, she was elected a chairwoman of one of these camps. And by this point, Dadaab was the largest refugee camp in the world, home to 300,000 people - plastic tents given way to stone blocks and iron sheets. Last year, Abdurahman paid a visit back to the country she fled in 1992 on a U.N.-sponsored trip meant to convince refugees that parts of Somalia were safe enough to return to. But what she saw there shocked her.
ABDURAHMAN: In fact, we have seen differences. The roads are very bad. The schools were not even well-built.
WARNER: Crumbling roads and schools she could've predicted because of the war. The Somali school curriculum spoke to a deeper dysfunction. One lesson would be in Arabic. The next lesson would be in English. It was all mixed up, she says, and it unsettled her. What kind of person would she be if she'd grown up there instead of here in the camp?
BEN RAWLENCE: That's probably the most interesting thing about Dadaab, is that the refugee camp has had a kind of liberalizing influence.
WARNER: Ben Rawlence has spent the last three years writing a book about Dadaab, especially about the earliest arrivals who've lived most of their lives in the camps.
RAWLENCE: They are a ready-made middle class - educated Somalis ready and waiting to move into Somalia to rebuild the country.
WARNER: Abshira Hassan would seem to be the perfect example of that educated class; though, Kenyan law forbids refugees from working. In the meantime, the 26-year-old has pursued almost every certificate course and job training that a refugee in the camp can apply for.
ABSHIRA HASSAN: Like leadership training, conflict prevention, community development. There are a lot I can't recall that I have done.
WARNER: But her 24 years in this camp has also cost her family any claim on land that they once owned in a country that she's never known. Her unlikely fantasy is that one day the camp gates will open and she'll be granted a Kenyan passport.
HASSAN: That's nice that they are consider us Kenyan citizens.
WARNER: A phrase that you always hear in the camp is that they'll return to Somalia when it's peaceful. But that can mean different things. For Abdurahman, it means a decent school for her kids. For Hassan, it's a chance to finally leave job training for a job. For Hussein Farah, a former science teacher who was elected a camp chairman, a peaceful Somalia is one safe enough to hold a general presidential election.
HUSSEIN FARAH: Yeah, I was elected by one man, one vote in the camp.
WARNER: So you basically want Somalia to look more like Dadaab?
WARNER: He's willing to apply the skills he's learned in the camp to rebuild his country just as soon as his country starts to look more like his camp. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Dadaab.
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