RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're going to turn now to Kenya, which is home to the largest refugee settlement in the world. The 350,000 thousand people who call the camp home have fled war and famine in neighboring Somalia. The Kenya government wants the Dadaab camp shut down. They say it's a question of national security. The United Nations says closing the camp and sending refugees back to Somalia, where there's an ongoing civil war, could be a humanitarian catastrophe. Laura Heaton, reporting from Dadaab, says there's another way to think about these refugees, not as potential terrorists, nor helpless dependents, but a potential labor force.
LAURA HEATON, BYLINE: Dadaab is a sprawling camp in arid northeastern Kenya. It began in the early '90s as a ramshackle settlement. But today, it's large enough to be Kenya's third-biggest city. Ibrahim Mohamed has lived here for more than two decades. He fled Somalia with his family when he was a child. Today, he lives in one of the nicer houses in Dadaab, a concrete structure home to his growing family.
IBRAHIM MOHAMED: (Speaking Somali).
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Speaking Somali).
HEATON: Ibrahim Mohamed's baby boy is almost 4 months old. But Ibrahim and his wife Amina still haven't agreed on his name. She wants to call him Muntasir. Ibrahim favors Abdelrahman.
So who won?
MOHAMED: Still the competition is going (laughter).
HEATON: Ibrahim is losing this competition because he hasn't been around. Amina was pregnant when Ibrahim got what many refugees dream of, a job. He's back in Somalia, the country his family fled, working as a women's protection officer in the central Somali town of Dhusamareb. And that makes him a trailblazer. He's one of dozens of refugees who are going home to use the job skills they've learned in the camp, skills like nursing.
John Kiogora, a Kenyan doctor, walks me through the pediatric ward at one of the hospitals in Dadaab. A little girl screams as a nurse puts an IV into her tiny arm. Both the girl and the nurse are refugees.
JOHN KIOGORA: So Mom, (speaking Swahili). So this is a child who was - OK. Let me get a translator.
HEATON: Nine of the 10 nurses on duty in this ward are refugees. They give vaccinations, do lab tests, teach parents about malnutrition. They're paid peanuts for the work. And because of Kenyan law, they're basically considered interns. But they're gaining skills that are sorely needed in the understaffed hospitals back in Somalia. Sirat Amin is a Kenyan nutrition manager.
SIRAT AMIN: We have potential people in the camp. And the only thing they're lacking is to connect them to the opportunities in Somalia because you have many organizations in Somalia who are looking for people who are skilled.
HEATON: One more advantage for potential employers? This generation that grew up in Dadaab wasn't raised with the trauma of war.
ABDIKADIR MOHAMED: One time you run from explosion. You run that way, or you are kidnapped, or someone is forcing you to be radicalized or you can imagine.
HEATON: Abdikadir Mohamed, another refugee hospital worker, imagines the life he might have had had his family not fled Somalia when he was 4 years old.
MOHAMED: But for us, we are different because us, the only we know is - my friend, have you gone to school? Yeah. OK. Have you done your Yeah. What'd get? I got A. You know, that's our story.
HEATON: Aid organizations are beginning to see refugees, not just as dependents, but as a potential workforce to help rebuild Somalia. Refugees like this Ahmed Hassan, who's working with Save the Children in a Somali town just over the border, counseling parents on proper nutrition. The work he's doing is similar to what he did in the camps. But now he has a salary and a job title he's proud of.
AHMED HASSAN: As time goes on, I believe once the security level and the security change in the country, no one will opt to stay here. And many people will go back.
HEATON: But the choice to leave the camp may not be a choice much longer. Kenya announced it will close Dadaab by November this year. I called Ahmed, who was back in the camp to go to the dentist. There's no dentist where he lives now in Somalia. I asked how he's feeling about bringing his wife and kids along with him if the camp closes. It's a little bit hard, he says, with classic Somali understatement for tragedy. Ahmed's optimism is flagging. In the camp, they get education, vaccinations, safety.
HASSAN: I'm just thinking of it. But it's not really - it's a warzone still, yeah.
HEATON: A war zone that he's willing to work in, but that he's terrified to have his family call home. For NPR news, I'm Laura Heaton, Dadaab camp, Kenya.
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