Jul 23, 2013

A Refugee’s Pursuit for Livelihood

Amani Kishonge Ruhimbana an entrepreneur, a French teacher and a community development worker has been a refugee in Kenya for six years.  Amani who is now in his mid twenties flee his country DRC Congo in 2007 as a result of internal conflicts and insecurity. Despite his status as a refugee, he tells me he has never regarded himself as a helpless person. Instead, he is ever focused in achieving his dream of becoming a leader in his country some day.

In an interview with me, he disputes the general perception held by many people who have never been in a refugee camp. “There is often a bad image created out there about refugee camps.  The usual general view by many outsiders is perhaps that a refugee camp is a densely populated place with a multitude of idle people not capable of making a living.”

“Many fail to see the obvious fact that a refugee is just like any other person, only that their normal lives have been disrupted. A refugee could be anything from a doctor, a teacher to an entrepreneur, a journalist or even a farmer.” Amani who now resides in Dadaab refugee camp tells me.
A refugee trader in Dadaab refugee camps-Picture by Mohamed Bashir-Internews Europe.
Dadaab refugee complex in based in North Eastern Kenya in Garissa County just about 80 KM from the Somalia boarder. It currently hosts a massive population of 430, 000 refugees and asylum seekers most of whom come from

Thousands of men and women living in Dadaab complex, the worlds largest are resilient people who have walked long journeys in life. Through many income generating activities that freely happen in Dadaab camps, it is not hard to tell that many refugees are determined to make a living for their families despite the tough situation of having to live in isolation. 

Amani himself is very determined. Through his many walks in life, he tells me, his main focus is to surprise the world that a refugee can make it too.  

“Back in my country, I had just finished my Diploma in Commerce and my life was looking bright before hell broke loose. I had to flee. Members of my family were also forced to flee in different directions without a trace of one another. I ended up in Kenya myself. And so when I arrived in Kenya in 2007, I was settled in Kakuma refugee camp by UNHCR.” He explains.

He continues to explain to me how life can be very harsh if you are forced to flee and all over sudden happen to find yourself in a new country within a confined environment away from your loved ones. “I had never been in a refugee camp before. When I found myself in one, I thought my dreams would crash within no time. I almost gave up my hope.”

“I always held myself in high regard. In fact, my nick name is Prince which means the son of a king. The name was inspired by my great grandfather who was once a king in the Bavira Kingdom in my hometown. I always believed that I have the capability to do anything I ever wanted but I almost doubted myself when I was in Kakuma then,” he narrates.

Amani, a name which significantly means Peace in Kenya’s native language Kiswahili does not understand why his country has to be a subject of perennial internal conflicts. He tells me how he desires to be part of a permanent solution to his country. “I have my personal problems but in my head, I never stop thinking of problems facing my country.” He tells me.

He recounts how he later in 2007 reunited with some of his family members who had also been settled in Kakuma camp. That is when he decided to forget his miseries and focus on his future. He somehow repackaged himself and started getting involved in income generating activities within Kakuma camp.

“I got my first job as a French teacher in one of the primary schools in Kakuma. I also raised some money to establish a beauty parlour and a tailoring shop. Whenever I was not in class teaching French, I was either designing clothes in my shop or attending to my customers at my barber shop. I had acquired these skills while back in my country,” he adds.
Amani teaching French to Aid workers in Dadaab’sMain Office

Things were not rosy. He therefore had to think of other ideas. He then decided to open a salon shop with items that were donated to him by the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), an NGO that operates in Kakuma. “It’s not everyday that you get an opportunity like that,” he says.

“My hair designing skills had impressed LWF officers so much that they decided to support me to advance my business.  To be honest, my salon was the best thing that ever happened to me in a camp. It did very well especially because I had good partners but it only did well for a short while. My competitors from the host community were not happy.” He pauses.

He then narrates to me how he began having random problems with unscrupulous business competitors from the neighbouring Kakuma town. Some attacked him several times despite reporting them to local authorities. “One evening, a gang attacked me in my shop and took off with my working items. I was badly injured and I had to seek UNHCR’s protection intervention. That is how I ended up being relocated from Kakuma to Dadaab refugee complex.”

Amani had some savings with him when he arrived in Dadaab’s Ifo camp. He immediately established a mobile phone charging shop outside the main street of Ifo. He also purchased a new tailoring machine with which he established a cloth designing shop.

He tells me how he found Dadaab very structurally different from Kakuma. “Ifo camp was very populated. There were hundreds of refugees from Somalia being settled there every day. The conditions in Ifo were harsher than they were in Kakuma and there were many existing businesses all over town. It was hard to penetrate but I had to venture into something anyway.” He says.

“Despite all the challenges, I settled down quickly and I made a lot of fiends and customers from different nationalities. People brought to me their mobile phones to charge for them. Some even brought laptops, ipads and iphones. My shop became a busy hub but I had to be more watchful because of all the expensive electronics under my care.”

Amani continues to narrate to me how he was already putting together big plans to expand his business just before an unfortunate incident happened outside his shop in late 2011. An Improvised Explosive Device (IED) exploded right outside his shop. This was during the time when life in the camps was becoming unbearable due to insecurity.http://www.somaliareport.com/index.php/post/2363/Kenyan_Response_to_Attacks_in_Refugee_Camps
The explosion caused a stampede which found even him fleeing from his business leaving it unattended. “To my shock, I lost everything in my shop during the stampede which had created room for some people to rob me. All the expensive electronics had been stolen. My designed clothes had also been stolen. The arrival of the police made things even worse because they randomly arrested all people found within the scene of the incident including me.”He says.
He tells me how life turned upside down for him after that incident. Some of his customers who had lost their items in his shop began demanding him to pay for the stolen items. Some even threatened him.

He had no capacity to pay anything and so, he chose to seek protection from UNHCR again. UNHCR counselled him and offered him new shelter in a new settlement. He later applied for a compound management assistant job at UNHCR which he secured after a few weeks.  
Amani in his Compound Management office in Dadaab’s Main office

Even though he now lives and works in the UNHCR compound awaiting his durable solution, he says that he misses his relatives and friends back in the camps. “There are times when I feel like visiting my friends and relatives back in the camps but I really get scared because of what I went through there.”

Amani says that even though he has a job and a secure place to live, he is not entirely happy because he is not able to support his family with the little amount he makes. He teaches French to a few agency staff members working within the larger UN compound every evening after work. “What I would really love to do is to establish my own business first and then get a chance to further my studies even as I do these other jobs. I have people who depend on me you know!” He exclaims.

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