Mon Jul 27th, 2009 at 05:33:10 AM EST
Updated information: In August of 2008, I was offered an opportunity by the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR) - Refugee Sports Program, to go on a mission to visit the refugee camps of Dadaab, Kenya. UNHCR is mandated to supply shelter and food to people fleeing their home countries due to conflicts or disasters, and therefore financial support for sports and education programs for children and youth comes only after these basic life necessities are provided. Consequently, there is now a campaign to fund organized sports/play, education and vocational training programs independently, so that children and youth in refugee camp settings will be guaranteed sports and education activities, no matter what the latest crisis that UNHCR must respond to (to learn more, go to: www.Ninemillion.org). More below
Brought across with a slight edit by afew
The purpose of my mission was to meet with students, teachers, parents and aid organization practitioners, in order to start planning research projects that evaluate the benefits that children and youth in these camps can gain from involvement in integrated sports, play, education and training programs. We are particularly interested in learning about how healthy child development can be supported for those who live in the ongoing adversity and stress of a refugee camp setting, with a special focus on learning more about children's resilience processes, and how these resilience processes are enhanced by involvement in sports and education (resilience being the capacity of a person adapt to, overcome and develop competencies in the face of severe adversity).
The Dadaab refugee camps are situated in a harsh desert setting of northeast Kenya, just south of the equator and about 75 kilometers from the Somalia border, where temperatures can get up to 40 degrees centigrade in the summer. Currently (note: this was written in Sept 2008), there reside over 216,000 total refugees in 3 camps (Hagadera, Ifo and Dagahaley), of which approximately 85,000 are children and youth under the age of 18 and approximately another 30,00+ between the ages of 18 and 25 (so more than 57% of the camp is under the age of 25!). And each month an average of 4000 new refugees cross the borders of Somalia and Sudan to seek refuge in these camps (97% of the people in these camps have specifically fled the violence and political instability in Somalia).
Free basic primary education is offered to all children, but there are only 18 primary schools and 3 secondary schools for 85,000 children and youth - not nearly enough to meet the needs of those who desire further education. Funding is desperately needed for more secondary schools, more teachers and coaches (and ongoing teacher training), organized sports and play programs, vocational training programs, and scholarship opportunities for those youth who do succeed in school and want to advance further. Additionally, the traditional nature of the majority Somali culture normally discourages the participation of girls in sports, education, and training activities - so UNHCR is concentrating a lot of effort to improve educational, vocational and sports opportunities for girls throughout the Dadaab camps.
So in this total context, my visit to Dadaab was a real eye-opener. Movement by all aid organizations between the camps must always be accompanied by police escorts. The people here live and work in very basic, crowded circumstances, and are not allowed by the Kenyan government to leave these camps, unless to return to their home country, or to be resettled to a new home in a third country. Consequently, camp life tends to be quite frustrating, with many wondering what their future holds for them - a particular challenge when trying to motivate children and youth to keep pursuing education and vocational training (and keeping them out of trouble). Offering organized sports, education, and training programs offers important structure to the lives of children and youth in Dadaab. UNHCR has been working hard to improve conditions by inviting more international organizations in to develop more services, but this all takes time and money, so data about program effectiveness could be helpful.
Despite these hardships, challenges and frustrations, almost everyone I met in 3 days of visits with parents, teachers, and students were welcoming, respectful, and most impressively, are very motivated to keep working towards improving the conditions and opportunities for their children and youth. Sure, there is skepticism and frustration, and it is not easy for them to continually meet with a steady stream of visitors that often does not show in any tangible gains or results in the refugee`s situation. However, they remain hopeful and forward looking, and I found it particularly admirable that in each meeting there was a clear statement of needs made, and at the same time a sincere interest in the purpose of my visit. I was also impressed by the fact that they see the importance of integrating sports and arts into the education context, both for a more well-rounded education, but also because these activities will help draw more children and youth into school participation.
And even within this stressful, often unstable social milieu, there are some amazing success stories. For example, there is a group of girls who decided to develop a sports program for other girls (despite resistance from their community), and this has become so successful that they have created their own group "Girls United", which recently has received funding from an individual to build a computer training center and supply it with 20 computers. I was able to meet with this group and hear of their plans to expand their programs and business, with goals of getting more girls involved. A second example is the Parent-Teachers Association of the Hagadera Camp. This group of parents and teachers have been asking for more funding, in order to expand their secondary education capacities via more buildings and more teachers, and they were challenged by a UNHCR community service person not to just sit and wait for UNHCR funding, but to consider how they might raise their own money to do this. They took this challenge, and between them have raised enough money to employ a new secondary school teacher! And now, the PTAs in the other two camps have heard about this, and have taken it as a challenge to do the same thing! For very poor people to nonetheless raise their own money from meager savings, so their kids have more opportunities, is truly impressive!!
This is a photo of this day's group of refugees that have just arrived from Somalia, waiting for an opportunity to be interviewed and officially recognized as refugees, so they can get accees to services (ie, daily food rations, sticks & tarps for a shelter, and a plot of land).
In closing, I make this appeal to my readers: I seek your support (either for funds or for your ideas about where I could seek funds) to help get our research started, with the goal to support, identify, and ultimately improve the quality and quantity of organized sports/play, education, and vocational training programs for youth in the Dadaab refugee camps. It is their future you will be helping!
Update July 2009: A year after my visit to Dadaab, the number of refugees fleeing from the conflict in Somalia has how swollen the population of the camps to over 285,000 people!! And 57% of this number is youth and children under the age of 25! Unfortunately, even though both myself and UNHCR have been actively looking for funding to support these children and youth sport, education and training programs, we have so far had no luck. As it is, UNHCR is making an emergency request for 92 million dollars to meet their emergency food and shelter needs.