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Some Refugees Returning Home To Help Rebuild Somalia

Deko Abdi Ismal, 19, teaches at a school in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya. The education and work experience that residents gain are a boon in the job market in Somalia.
Edwina Pickles Fairfax Media via Getty Images
Deko Abdi Ismal, 19, teaches at a school in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya. The education and work experience that residents gain are a boon in the job market in Somalia.

Some Refugees Returning Home To Help Rebuild Somalia

Ibrahim Mohamed's baby boy is almost 4 months old, but Ibrahim and his wife, Amina, still haven't agreed on his name. "She said, 'My baby son will be Muntasir,'" Ibrahim says. He prefers Abdelrahman. "Still the competition is going!"

But Ibrahim thinks he'll lose this competition because he hasn't been around. Ibrahim and Amina are Somali, but they've been living in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya since the early 1990s. (Amina was born here.) The newlyweds were expecting their first child when Ibrahim got what many refugees here dream of: A job. Only not in Kenya.


In November, Ibrahim moved back to Somalia, the country his family fled when he was 3 years old, to work as a women's protection officer in the central Somali town of Dhusamareb. He'll help women who report sexual violence and educate communities about gender-based violence. He's a trailblazer — one of dozens of refugees who are going home to a country still plagued by fighting to use the job skills they've learned in the camp.

It's an opportunity he didn't have in Kenya. Registered with the U.N. refugee agency, Ibrahim isn't legally allowed to work because the Kenyan government doesn't want to encourage him — and the nearly half a million refugees like him — to stay. But he owes the job in part to his refugee experience. During the two decades he lived in the camp, Ibrahim went to school, then joined the International Rescue Committee's team in Dadaab in a role known as "incentive staff."

Incentive staff give vaccinations, teach parents about malnutrition and test for various diseases in the lab. Some learn to be managers by shadowing the full-time staff. Jason Philips of the New York-based IRC said this in-camp work has been going on for decades.

"Incentive" refers to the way these refugees used to be reimbursed for their work. "In the 1990s and earlier, very often they actually were incentives," says Philips. "People were paid with salt, with soap, with blankets, with clothing, with forms of food rations."

Now these refugee workers are paid about $100 month — essentially an internship stipend. That's a pittance even in Dadaab. But through this program, thousands of refugees have gone to school and learned skills that could be put to use literally reconstructing their country.


So Dadaab is not just a place where refugees get care — they are also giving the care. In the pediatric ward at one of the camp's hospitals, nine of the ten nurses on duty are refugees.

Here's another advantage for potential employers in Somalia: These refugees haven't grown up in war, which started when the government was overthrown in 1991. Abdikadir Mohamed, another refugee worker, said he and others like him in the camp aren't traumatized the way people are on the other side of the border in Somalia.

"Their mind is actually frustrated," says Mohamed of the Somalians who did not flee, as he did when he was a child. "Because you know one time you ran from explosion, you run that way, or you're kidnapped, or someone is forcing you to be radicalized. But for us, we are different. Because us, the only thing we know is, 'My friend, have you gone to school? Have you done your exam? What was your grade?' 'I got A.' You know that's our story, our normal story."

Aid organizations are beginning to see refugees not just as dependents but as a potential workforce to help rebuild Somalia.

Sirat Amin is a Kenyan nutrition manager. "We have potential people in the camp," he said. "And the only thing they're lacking is to connect them to the opportunities in Somalia, because we have many organizations in Somalia who are looking for people who are skilled." Sirat's former understudy, Ahmed Hassan, recently got a job in Somalia. Sirat was one of Ahmed's references. "I really felt impressed because I felt like I did something to mentor somebody through, and he's today working," Sirat said.

Ahmed was hired by the international aid group Save the Children and moved to a Somali town just over the border to direct a nutrition program. The work he's doing is similar to what he did in the camps, but now he has a salary and job title. "As time goes on, I believe that once the security changes in the country, no one will opt to stay here. And many people will go back," Ahmed said.

But the choice to leave the camp may not be a choice much longer. Kenya announced it will close Dadaab by November of this year.

For Ibrahim, Ahmed, and the skilled refugees forging their way back to Somalia for jobs, the move is a deliberate one: considered, weighed, talked through. And they have the peace of mind of knowing their families are safe.

Those are all marked differences from the scenario now looming as the Kenyan government plots a closure timeline that suggests camp residents will be forced to leave. A 2014 survey of refugees showed that fewer than 3 percent feel like their country is safe enough to return to. Indeed the militant group al Shabaab still controls swaths of the country.

Ahmed was back in the camp last month to go to the dentist — there's no dentist where he lives now in Somalia. Speaking to NPR by phone, he said the Kenyan government's announcement is making him consider where his family could live, but he's stumped. He's proud to be working in Somalia, even if it is, as he says, "a war zone still." But he doesn't picture his family joining him soon. In the camp, his kids get an education, vaccinations, safety.

"So taking children and the family at the moment there, who have not been in that experience of staying in Somalia, it's a little bit hard," he says with classic Somali understatement.

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