KAKUMA, KENYA - Like many places hosting refugees, the town of Kakuma in northwestern Kenya saw tensions rise when people fleeing war and lack of basic services flooded in from South Sudan. The new arrivals are staying in a U.N. refugee camp that is already above capacity, causing challenges, but there is also hope and cooperation.
To ease the tensions, the UNHCR invited the local ethnic Turkana community to open businesses in the camp, so they can benefit from the refugees’ presence.
Antagonism grew because the refugees get free schools and hospital care. This strife can turn against the camp’s most vulnerable residents, the women.
Sitani Elamo, 42, lives with her family in a home with clay walls and plastic sheets. She supports them by doing beadwork. Life is not bad she says, but she doesn’t feel safe.
She says that when she goes outside to collect firewood, the Turkana chase her. When there is no firewood she stays close to home and takes the little she can find.
The UNHCR received 7,000 refugees from South Sudan at this site last year, and the number of new arrivals for 2019 has already surpassed the 2018 figure.
“Until the situation is stabilized, the services are again provided, the schools are open, the hospitals are equipped with drugs and equipment they require, we will not be in the position to see a strong return," said Tayyar Sukru Cansizoglu, who heads the UNHCR in Kenya. Cansizoglu says many people here are fleeing South Sudan because of its lack of services after the civil war.
Clothes, vegetables and plastics are sold in the market of the Kakuma camp. The arrival of refugees turned Kakuma into a remote city of 180,000 people. There are some 40,000 tents and shelters around the site, and as women light charcoal fires, children run around and play.
Logosa Akaran is Turkana, and sells maize flour, bread and oil from his shop inside the camp. He says he is happy to be here.
He says that sometimes there are issues when Turkana and South Sudanese insult each other but those are minor issues. Logosa says he lives peacefully and even sleeps here with no problems.
Helping the communities to benefit from each other is key to easing tensions, says the UNHCR's Cansizoglu.
“They say they are very happy to have the refugees because thanks to them they have jobs and food at home,” he said.
Most of the refugees hope that one day they will be able to return to South Sudan. For now, they are settling in.
Sitanim the South Sudanese refugee, recently purchased bricks and cement. The materials are being used to upgrade her family’s shelter.