Can Kenya Convince Somali Refugees To Head Home?

May 31, 2015
Originally published on July 11, 2015 1:33 am

Kenya wants to close the sprawling refugee camp on its border with Somalia. But the UN says it will do so only if residents leave voluntarily. One man has been tapped to help the refugees return home. This story first aired on Morning Edition on May 28.

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Kenya wants to send hundreds of thousands of refugees back to their home countries, but the U.N. says it cannot force people out. The country's government wants to close the world's largest refugee camp called Dadaab. After years of threats and scare tactics, it is trying a softer approach - salesmanship. NPR's Gregory Warner reports that Kenya has tapped a Somali refugee to make the pitch.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Noor Tawane has the open-shirted, wide-smiled, heavy-lidded look of a born salesman. He arrived at Dadaab Camp in 1992 at the age of 7, a refugee with nothing fleeing a war. But he's the kind of guy who might have made a fortune by now, except Kenya does not allow Somali refugees to work or get citizenship. And so, Tawane has spent his entire life here at the camp making himself indispensable to foreign aid agencies. He's been a supervisor of microfinance loans, a builder of schools, a renter of vehicles, and he's invested his earnings in a giant shed of diesel generators tucked away in the sprawling camp. He sells electricity by the kilowatt.

How many houses does this power?

NOOR TAWANE: Four hundred and twenty households.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTOR)

WARNER: But Tawane's latest venture is not about serving the expanding camp. It's about trying to shrink it. Kenya wants the 24-year-old camp closed. The U.N. mandates that repatriation must be voluntary. Late last year, the United Nations started offering packages to people that agreed to leave, including cooking implements and some cash. But less than 3,000 refugees took the deal, twice as many babies were born in the camp over the same period. Faced with this impasse, the Kenyan government has tapped Tawane to convince his fellow camp residents to take the package and turn in their refugee cards. For one week, he'll be touring the camp on four by four pickup trucks with Somali dancers and singers belting the Somali, which sounds like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, SOMALI ANTHEM)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in foreign language).

WARNER: But if patriotism alone does not work, then Tawane has another argument up his sleeve. This deal won't last long.

TAWANE: They have to go back, start farming, start any other activity I feel like.

WARNER: Before, whatever farm or land you do have in Somalia is stolen by your neighbors. Sixty-eight-year-old Hassan Dahir Osman fled the drought four years ago. He's going back because, as Tawane has reminded him, the rains have come. It's planting time.

HASSAN DAHIR OSMAN: (Through interpreter) We don't know if our farms have been taken by other people. We have heard nothing from there since we fled.

WARNER: For farmers like Osman, the decision to leave is just about the details - getting enough severance from the U.N. for bus fare and farming tools. Habiba Aden Abdi is a tougher case. Her 25 camels died from drought. Here in the camp, her 3-year-old son loves his free school where he's learning English.

HABIBA ADEN ABDI: (Through interpreter) Here, our children are in school. If we're allowed to stay, we'll stay. But if we're asked to go, we'll go.

WARNER: But even if her son learns English, there is no future for him here in the camp or in Kenya, which bars Somali refugees from leaving the camp. And the hardest sell of all are the majority of camp residents who are either born here or left Somalia as children two decades ago. Tawane knows that these are the hardest to convince because he's one of them himself. His family home and farm abandoned in 1992 are since occupied. And then suddenly, Tawane is selling me on why he can't go back.

TAWANE: If you go back now, it's like a confrontation between the ones that are now living and my father. Saying, this is my house. This is not yours, which means a new fighting will just erupt.

WARNER: He says the only home his family has now is here in Dadaab Camp.

TAWANE: And where we found that we can live forever.

WARNER: Forever?

TAWANE: Yeah. Forever.

WARNER: Now, this might seem a bit hypocritical, but it's just a bolder version of the doublespeak that you hear from many refugees. Habiba Abdurhaman, a camp chairwoman, rattles off all the reasons that Somalia is not safe or suitable for her until she explains that the newer arrivals, the refugees that came post-2006.

HABIBA ABDURAHMAN: Those ones, they have to go back immediately.

WARNER: Her reason, like Tawane's, is that newer arrivals have farms or homes to go back to. But there are other lines of division. Refugees from places still held by islamist militants argue that those from the government-held places should now go home and the common hope being that those who manage to stay the longest might get what both the United Nations and the United States have quietly encouraged Kenya to offer - a path to citizenship.

TAWANE: Because someone who has been here for 25 years is just like, similar to Uhuru Kenyatta.

WARNER: The Kenyan president.

TAWANE: Just a Kenya. I know there have been slight segregation. But as time goes, things will change.

WARNER: Tawane hopes that if he does a good enough job convincing his fellow refugees to go home, Kenya might accept him as one of its own. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Dadaab. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.