Moving Day: Somali Father Creates Home in a Refugee Camp

Into moving boxes went two of my grandmother’s delicate china teacups, family photographs, and our wedding gifts—all the little keepsakes that make a house my home. When my husband and I moved in Nairobi we debated over where we would hang the lovely blue portrait from our favorite Kenyan artist, Michael Musyoka. We walked the grounds and thought about what flowers we might plant. We organized the kitchen and decorated the walls. We unpacked the tea cups, the photographs, the gifts.

A week later I was in Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp situated in Kenya a short distance from the Somali border. Two years ago, in the midst of a drought in East Africa and famine in Somalia, Dadaab was in the media spotlight. We saw countless images of frail Somalis streaming in to Kenya in search of assistance. Originally built for 90,000 people, the camps now house more than 400,000. Catholic Relief Services is working in one such camp, Kambioos, helping to provide household latrines and sanitation and hygiene education.

Kambioos is where I met Ahmed Hussein, hygiene promoter, loving husband and proud father of six.

Ahmed and his family fled the Kismayo region of Somalia when the water ran out and his crops failed. The family did not pack up tea cups or photographs.

Ahmed Hussein holds one of his pigeons. He and his family sought refuge in Dadaab during the Somali famine of 2010.

Ahmed Hussein holds one of his pigeons. He and his family sought refuge in Dadaab during the Somali famine of 2010.

They sold off all their belongings to purchase seats on trucks and buses that would take them to Dadaab. They left with only their clothes on their back, a cooking pot, and a sleeping mat. In the two years since they’ve arrived the family has been given a small plot of land in the Kambioos. They use the tent they received for sleeping and have built a hut and a dome-shaped sitting room out of twigs, tattered mosquito netting and old sheets.  The modest income Ahmed earns teaching others about hand washing and hygiene has provided a few cooking utensils and some mats for visitors to sit on and share conversation and a cup of spicy sweetened Somali tea.

Neighbors often stop in to chat or get advice on how to keep their compounds clean. Children chase Ahmed’s youngest, Farhia, in the courtyard. In a barren landscape of endless sand punctuated by the spiny inhospitable looking acacia trees and the more than 5,000 family plots in the refugee camp, Ahmed has built a home others want to visit.  His goal, like mine, was to make his home a beautiful place where his family can grow and prosper.

The gentle coo of ordinary pigeons intermingles with the conversation and laughter in Ahmed’s compound. In the tree that grows alongside the family’s lone mud hut Ahmed has hung bird houses fashioned from flattened metal powdered milk containers  stitched together with salvaged wire. Circular and square doors for the birds have been hand cut into the yellow and green metal. During a trip to the Hagadera market Ahmed purchased four pigeons. Now he has 10. He had 40 in Somalia. The pigeons aren’t for sale or consumption. Ahmed keeps them simply because they’re beautiful.

Ahmed picks up a pigeon and smoothes its feathers with the flat of his palm. His gentle hands calm the bird before he places it in its metal home. As I watch Ahmed, I marvel that though our lives may seem to be  worlds apart, we have the same goals: the health and safety of our families. And we have a similar quest to beautify our lives, to unite our past and present. For me it’s with family keepsakes and a blue Muskoya portrait, for Ahmed it’s the iridescent gray pigeons that remind him of the land he left behind.

This is too often missing from the stories we hear and the images we see of refugees. We focus on their loss and despair, but risk missing the unwavering human dignity that binds us all.. The terrible images of famine we saw two years ago were a necessary call to arms, compelling people and nations to make a difference in the lives of hundreds of thousands Somali refugees. But the images I saw during my visit with Ahmed and his family are just as necessary. These are images of hope and rebirth, the ones that make me realize just why it is worth investing in a life like Ahmed’s. Because, despite our many differences, at our core we are one and the same.

Sara A. Fajardo is a CRS regional information officer for East and Southern Africa. She is based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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