Futures on hold, dreams of escape

Every morning when 16-year-old Duol Ter wakes up in his hut in Kenya’s sprawling Dadaab refugee camp, he goes to see his cherished pigeons. He began with just two and now there are dozens of them, fed with carefully hoarded grain, living in makeshift homes built out of discarded USAID boxes.

Since he came to the camp in 2013 at the age of 5, fleeing the civil war in South Sudan, the pigeons have been his companions and a way to pass his days — along with school. But when he leaves this camp — which he is sure one day he will — they will have to stay behind.

“I love my pigeons [but] I will leave them in the camp when the U.N. takes me to another country,” he said. “I will not be sad about that because where I will go, there will also be pigeons.”

The families that make the forbidding journey to Dadaab, one of the world’s largest refugee camps, see it as a transition or gateway to something better, even though most will go on to live their whole lives there. Hope often comes in the form of the simple school buildings that offer a way out.

While most teenagers around the world take for granted that they will leave home after graduation, those growing up in refugee camps are stuck in perpetual limbo.

Ter learned his first words in English at a refugee camp school in Kenya after an ethnically driven civil war broke out in his Sudanese home state of Jonglei. “I remember hearing people screaming and me running with my aunt, then I remember the long journey to Nairobi by bus; my aunt, her two children and me. It was scary because we thought we would be killed on the road,” he recalled. He was staying with his aunt when the war came and doesn’t know what happened to his parents and siblings.

He believes he will go one day to Australia, after he and his aunt did resettlement interviews with the U.N. refugee agency last year. But they are still here — the resettlement process can take years.

In the meantime, he hopes he can study his way out of the camp, graduate in three years and get a rare, coveted scholarship to a university in Kenya. His goal is to become a doctor and return to South Sudan to find his family.

“When I think about my parents, and my two siblings, I want to study hard, mainly because I know that if I get an education, I will find them,” he said.

Dadaab grew out of the civil war in neighboring Somalia in 1991 and now is home to more than 380,000 people — three times more than it was originally built for.

The camp is still more than 97 percent Somali, but the wars and droughts across the region have expanded the population with refugees and asylum seekers from as far away as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, South Sudan, Burundi, Eritrea and Ethiopia.

Konsow Hassan, 21, pictured in the white headscarf between her friends, arrived from Somalia when she was just 8. Now, together with her best friend Habibo Hussein, 19 (on her right) she is in her final year of high school — one of more than 70,000 students being educated in camp schools.

Once they dreamed of a peaceful Somalia; now they dream of being resettled by the United Nations in Canada. And if resettlement doesn’t come through, only good grades at school can get them out of the camp. “This being our final year of high school will be the year that may determine whether we leave or not,” she said.

According to the U.N. refugee agency, which runs most of the camp’s schools, there are around 1,500 graduates in the camp every year and only enough scholarships to universities outside for about 1 percent of them.

Ubah Wali Abdisamad, 17, hasn’t been to school in months. She wants to go back, hopes to, but there are so many other things to do. Her family home in the camp was inundated in recent floods and all nine of them took refuge in a school. Now she is lining up to receive the supplies, pushing and shoving with other women to get the four blankets, four pieces of soap, a mat and water can allotted to each family.

She has no memories of her native Somalia, which she left with her father soon after her mother died. She has spent her whole life in the camp.

“I want to study and learn to speak English like many people because I will be able to do more with that knowledge,” she said.

Abdifatah Abdi Hussein, 19, is good at math. Really good. And word has got around. Kids flock to his home in the camp for help — he’s even set up a makeshift classroom, complete with chalk board, for his teaching sessions.

Hussein is also in his final year of high school and is hoping his skills will earn him a scholarship and a way out of the camp he’s lived in since he was 7. His mother took him and his four brothers and sisters away from a part of Somalia controlled by the radical Islamist al-Shabab group so they could get an education.

“There was no school, only Islamic religion there,” he recalled. “The world is developing and now the world is about a book and a pen.” His dream is to study in America and become a computer engineer.

Located in eastern Kenya, the sprawling settlement takes its name from the nearby Kenyan town of Dadaab and is made up of four distinct camps: Hagadera, Dagahaley, Ifo and Ifo 2. Walking along the dirt paths between homes made of dried mud, metal siding and tree branches, there are scenes familiar to any Kenyan village, as children play with handmade wooden toys or roll hoops on the ground.

Kindergartens, elementary schools and high schools can be found scattered around the camps. Schools are built of stone and filled with wooden desks and chalkboards, though as the population expands they are supplemented with long white tents. They give the children in the camp the sense of a future — though many end up dropping out to help their parents make ends meet.

Throughout the camps, the homes are made of mud or metal sheets, fortified by tree branches — seemingly temporary structures that have now housed families for decades. Inside her hut, Nyamuch Tel Muon, 19, dresses her little sister Nyanchiok, 8. They came here 13 years ago fleeing tribal violence in Sudan. The tree branches along the wall offer convenient nooks and crannies to secure their toothbrushes, combs and other pieces of their daily lives.

Alice Nishimwe dreams of Australia. “I want to be a doctor and change my family’s life one day,” she said. For now she’s going to school and, in her spare time, working at a beauty salon at the camp market, braiding women’s hair to help her mother, who washes clothes, make rent.

In 2013 her father was killed in Rutana, Burundi. So her mother wrapped her up, placed her on her back and fled to Kenya with her two other children, eventually reaching Dadaab in 2019.

It’s not an easy life. Sometimes they need to sell their food rations to meet their daily needs.

“I have missed school so many times so that I can work and help sustain the family because my mother and siblings have been through enough suffering. I am hopeful that soon, our lives will change,” Nishimwe said.

Her mother, who has done the interviews with the U.N. refugee agency for resettlement, was told she would go to Australia, but that was 10 years ago. In the meanwhile, she stays in the camp, where at least there is a school. “Alice studying makes me happy and it gives me hope for a better future.”

Halima Hamud was born in the Dadaab camp of Hagadera in 2006, the last of seven children. Her mother arrived soon after it opened in 1992 as part of the first wave of refugees from the Somali civil war.

Every year she looks forward to school starting again, as there is little to do without it. “Life without school is very boring when you don’t have anything else to do.” Like so many other teens in Dadaab, it also represents a way out. Her older sister — one of only three of her siblings who went to school — won a scholarship to the University of Nairobi in 2021.

“That gives me hope that I can also make it,” she said. Ahead of her loom the national exams, and how she performs will dictate what avenues are open to her going forward.

“I have bigger dreams to achieve, dreams that are not possible to achieve here,” she said.

About this story

Photography and video by Malin Fezehai. Text by Rael Ombuor. Story editing by Jennifer Samuel, Paul Schemm, Zoeann Murphy and Jon Gerberg. Design and development by Aadit Tambe. Design editing by Joe Moore. Copy editing by Rebecca Branford.

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