Somali Refugees Hang on to Hope in Camps Camps in Kenya house 140,000 refugees from civil war and deprivation in Somalia. There is fear that extremist Islamist groups will find recruits amid the stagnant life in the camps.

Somali Refugees Hang on to Hope in Camps

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

A stretch of scrub land along Kenya's northeast border is home to tens of thousands of refugees from neighboring Somalia. These men, women and children fled violence and deprivation in their homeland. Life in the refugee camps is desolate, and experts say the tens of thousands of youths in the camp represent a time bomb of potential extremism. They also represent Somalia's best hope for a stable future. NPR's Eric Westervelt has the second part of our series on terrorism in the Horn of Africa.

(Soundbite of camp activity)


A large crowd of Somalis, clasping faded yellow plastic containers, swarms around what look like a collection of small, metallic flower stalks poking out of the sand. They're water tap stands in the heart of the Hagadera refugee camp.

(Soundbite of container being filled)

WESTERVELT: For a few hours each day, water flows from these deep wells, and thousands of refugees rush to fill up their plastic cans hoping to get enough water to get through the day.

(Soundbite of camp scuffle)

WESTERVELT: Scuffles often break out at these tap stands. Kenyan police wait anxiously on the crowd's edge clutching their AK-47 rifles.

(Soundbite of camp activity)

WESTERVELT: Hagadera and its two sister camps have come to define this part of Kenya as much as the sand, thorn bushes and occasional acacia tree that dot the arid landscape. Thirteen years on these camps have the trappings of permanence in what is supposed to be temporary shelter. Life here is difficult at best, and the majority of refugees say they don't really want to return to Somalia now, even if it were an option. Refugee Abdul Abdullah Mossed.

Mr. ABDUL ABDULLAH MOSSED: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Translator: He says the war's still there. How can he go back when there's a lot of war? People are still fighting, people are still being killed, so he cannot go back.

WESTERVELT: There are about 140,000 refugees here. The aid group CARE runs these camps for the UN. Food is one ongoing problem. The rations are meager, no vegetables or meats. Refugees mainly eat a bland porridge made from a powdered corn-soy blend. The refugees grumble about the taste and the amount. The World Food Program directs the ration program. Their goal is simple: to provide the refugees with the 2,100 kilocalories a day the United Nations recognizes as the minimum daily intake.

Mr. JABU GUNDA (World Food Program): I'm hesitant to mention that this is beyond the resources that we have at the moment.

WESTERVELT: Jabu Gunda is a refugee camp program officer for the World Food Program.

Mr. GUNDA: For example, in 2003, we were able to distribute 1,700 kilocalories, which represented about 70 percent recommended intake. But in 2004, we were able to distribute an average of over 1,900 kilocalories. This year we're on track to do the same.

WESTERVELT: The WFP admits that's barely enough, and refugees complain bitterly that family members have been dropped from the food ration rolls during this latest camp survey. The UN says the survey is needed to root out fraud, refugee double-dippers taking more food than allotted. These tensions in the camp are somewhat predictable. The everyday desperation, barely adequate food and water, overcrowding and malaria is a dangerous mix, says 22-year-old refugee Nuhr Abdeli(ph).

Mr. NUHR ABDELI: A hungry man is always an evil source. They are being forced to accept whatever the situation that we give them for living.

WESTERVELT: That situation, some camp administrators say, includes impoverished refugees recruited by extremist groups, possibly including groups with theological allegiance to al-Qaeda or other terrorists. There is no evidence organized militant groups are operating in these camps. But Western intelligence and aid groups report that home-grown militant Islamist groups, including at least one harboring members of al-Qaeda's East Africa cell, are operating in and out of Somalia. And 23-year-old Abdel Karinjaro(ph) thinks it's only a matter of time before they penetrate the refugee camps.

Mr. ABDEL KARINJARO: They are forced to come ...(unintelligible) because of hunger. They have nothing to eat. They have nothing to do.

(Soundbite of camp activity; animals)

WESTERVELT: There are no real fences or gates at the Hagadera camp. Herds of camels gather inside the camp area every morning. Their owners guide them to the steep bank of the only watering hole for miles. These men are not refugees. Some are Kenyans from the nearby town; others are nomadic Somalis who regularly cross the border and travel the short distance to the refugee area. The camp's perimeters are as porous as the lawless border itself.

Particularly at risk for radicalism, some camp officials say, are the estimated 50,000 18- to 30-year-olds who are growing up here. Abdul Karinjaro is one of them. He and what was left of his family arrived in the camps when he was barely 10 years old. He says he and many of his fellow refugees have all but lost a sense of self that builds identity and can bring a community together.

Mr. KARINJARO: You don't have identity. You're not somebody. You're not Kenyan. You have been here for 15 years. You don't have a (unintelligible). So what is supposed to be? What should you do with your life?

WESTERVELT: The majority of young people here are banned from employment and travel by Kenyan law. Twenty-eight-year-old Abdul Kadir(ph) is one of the few refugees with a job. He runs a small booth that recharges cell phones with a gas-powered generator for the few refugees that can afford to rent a cell phone by the hour. Kadir says for the youth, there is nothing to do.

Mr. ABDUL KADIR: (Through Translator) They come to the market in the morning and go back in the evening. They just linger in the street in the market area, smoking cigarettes with no work at all.

WESTERVELT: Among refugees, there's growing distrust, even blame being levied against the international community and especially the aid groups that help them. It's not just the familiar charge that aid groups create a culture of dependence. There's the perception that some relief groups, by doing business in Somalia, perpetuate instability there and finance the warlords. Refugee Ahmed Mohammed Farrar(ph).

Mr. AHMED MOHAMMED FARRAR: (Through Translator) Because when it goes into the country, the aid group has to rent a house. If someone has a roadblock, the aid group has to pay. They are helping the warlords. So if we stop those sources, it will be better. The warlord doesn't want a government because he's getting money now.

Mr. GORDY MOLITOR (CARE Somalia): You have to deal with the reality on the ground. The reality on the ground is that there are warlords there.

WESTERVELT: Gordy Molitor is director of CARE Somalia. He points out that inside Somalia, aid groups still provide 40 percent of the population's food intake. If aid groups didn't work with that reality on the ground, Molitor says, Somalis would likely starve.

Mr. MOLITOR: And so we rent vehicles. The only people that rent vehicles are the warlords. So, in effect, they do get money. I mean, we don't pay the warlord across his desk, but it's part of his operation because he controls everything that goes on in that area.

Unidentified Man: Fifteen divided by three is how much?

Group of People: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

Group of People: (Foreign language spoken)

WESTERVELT: The refugees in Hagadera and the nearby camps do praise the relief groups for the work they've done to educate refugee children. School enrollment is relatively high for both boys and girls, though they still don't have enough books and supplies to go around. Some refugees hope the future leaders of Somalia come out of these camp schools. Refugee Dahram Hamid Ali(ph).

Mr. DAHRAM HAMID ALI (Refugee): (Through Translator) If we give all children education, maybe they'll go back to Somalia and won't know how to use firearms and set up roadblocks. Their minds will be clean. Perhaps they'll be the young people able to rebuild the country.

WESTERVELT: A foundation set up by South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu created an Emerging Leaders program here. The aim is to help foster hope among the camps' desperate youth. Twenty-two-year-old Saudia Ahmed(ph) is a member.

Ms. SAUDIA AHMED: Youth who are in the camps have more bright future than the youth in Somalia. So I hope in the future, in cooperation with the international organizations, to work together to start unity and togetherness from the camp level, and then we move from here to Somalia.

WESTERVELT: But these young men and women have spent most of their lives as refugees. They have only fleeting memories of life in Somalia. And many of their leaders fear that without robust international intervention to try to bring stability to Somalia, these would-be leaders might return to their homeland and simply be swept up into the rule of the gun. Eric Westervelt, NPR News.

BLOCK: You can hear the first part of our series on terrorism around the Horn of Africa and see a map of the region at our Web site,

NORRIS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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