With a population of around 450,000 people and counting, Dadaab, in north-eastern Kenya, is the biggest refugee camp in the world. Every day new refugees arrive, most of them from war-torn Somalia. Not long after their arrival, Somali refugees show their famous spirit of enterprise.
By Ilona Eveleens, Dadaab
Most newcomers to Dadaab first build temporary shelters from branches, cloth and plastic. Aid organisations supply them with mattresses, blankets, cooking pots and food. When the time comes for new residents to receive tents from the United Nations provides, this equipment has to be moved to their permanent homes.
One Somali refugee had the idea of starting a transport business. Using a small cart he brought he ships the refugees’ belongings to their tents, for a small fee.
A proper restaurant
Halimo Aden, a mother of six, started another type of business. In an improvised teahouse she sells hot tea from thermos flasks, and white rolls. Aden arrived three months ago and opened her teahouse ten weeks later, opposite one of the busiest registration centres in Dadaab.
Her customers are mainly aid organisation workers and some refugees with small amounts of cash. The business woman has even bigger plans. “I hope to save a bit so I can start a proper restaurant,” she says. “I have to make a living here because I will never return to Somalia. Life was too hard there. ”
From phones to firewood
Between the endless rows of white tents, powdered with dust, a young man walks with a mobile phone. He offers refugees calls home. The five percent on top of the normal charge is his salary. Another youngster, born in the camp that was erected shortly after anarchy broke out in Somalia, sells his excellent English language skills. The 18-year-old learned the language in a Dadaab school.
He translates for aid workers and journalists, naturally for a fee.
Elsewhere in the camp a few girls struggle to carry firewood. They have to walk long distances to collect it. It’s not for their own use. Their mother sells it to refugees who cannot make the long trek into the bush.
The local communities have a couple of issues with the newcomers, firewood being of them. The inhabitants of the region are Somalis, just like the refugees. “We feel connected”, says Aden Rashid of the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation and Development organisation, a local NGO.
But he adds: “It is always hard in this semi-desert region to find firewood without destroying the very few trees that grow here. Now we need to travel several tens of kilometres to find firewood, which we need for cooking. It just gets worse with almost half a million of extra people.”
The population of Dadaab, Hagadera and Dagahaley, the main towns around the refugee camp, is disgruntled. They feel that the refugees receive better treatment than they do. Local communities have been given some some help, but we are also affected by drought and hunger,” says Rashid. “Our community exists mainly of nomads. Their cattle has died. They came to town for help and now all they see is how well the refugees are assisted while they feel left out,” says Aden Rashid.
The few market stalls in the towns have hardly benefited from extra business despite the mass influx of refugees. The aid organisations and their workers are living in their own camps, complete with canteens, while the refugees don’t have any money.
Rashid feels for the refugees, but he believes that the camp should have been built on the other side of the border. “Many will not go back. It will create problems between the host communities and the refugees. We need to find another solution before conflicts erupt.”