Story and photos by Katie G. Nelson
Describe what it’s like living in the second largest refugee camp in the world: “Waiting,” replies Qaabata Boru, an Ethiopian-born journalist now living in exile.
From water and food rations, to official documents and resettlement services, “everything is waiting,” he explains. “People have been waiting for so many years, and sometimes [resettlement] happens, sometimes it does not.”
For most refugees, fleeing to Kakuma Refugee Camp in the deserts of northern Kenya means putting their careers, education, and life on hold. But for Boru and a group of exiled journalists, life in one of the largest refugee camps in the world was a story that had to be told.
Speaking from an office at a university in Nairobi, Kenya, Boru, now 30, said he never imagined leaving Ethiopia’s bustling capital of Addis Ababa only to end up in one of the biggest—and most isolated—refugee camps in the world.
Boru was just 20 years old when he fled his home country of Ethiopia after being arrested for publishing a story about police brutality at a demonstration in capital city of Addis Ababa.
Forced to leave or face arrest or worse, Boru began his journey toward Kenya’s bustling capital of Nairobi. But instead of starting a new life in another urban center, Boru was told he would be relocated to a remote refugee camp more than 400 miles north, near the border of South Sudan.
“Being in a foreign country, you don’t have another option. The moment you cross an international border, you are called a refugee,” he explains. “That was something I didn’t expect.”
With no other options, Boru headed north to join more than 161,000 refugees living in Kakuma Refugee Camp.
Jointly run by the United Nations and the Kenyan government, Kakuma is home to refugees who have fled from South Sudan, Ethiopia, and Somalia due to war or political instability.
The Kakuma camp was less than 50% funded in 2015, and as a result, the needs of refugees could not be addressed. Many residents at Kakuma lack access to basic health services, employment options, or sufficient amounts of food, Boru says.
“It’s a very hard life. There are no options on where to get money. In the camp, it’s only rations, so I had to wait in line with thousands of people (for food and water).”
And because the sprawling camp is located in an area almost completely isolated from the rest of the world, the only way is out is though the official resettlement process, which can take years.
While the lack of food, water and housing made life difficult, Boru says it was the corruption and violence against refugees that made life nearly unbearable.
“I felt like telling a story,” he says, “but I didn’t have anywhere to tell it.”
Drawing from his work as a journalist in Ethiopia and inspired by the lack of a “feedback mechanism” between refugees and camp officials, Boru’s decided to found Kakuma News Reflector or KANERE, an independent news publication run by exiled journalists living in Kakuma Refugee Camp.
“Our vision is in exercising a refugee free press, within the rule of law and a democratic society, in order to establish openness and fairness on issues of refugee affairs,” he says.
Together with a team of exiled reporters, Boru founded a club to teach budding journalists the craft of news reporting. But the fledging journalism club soon became a swelling movement with 2,134 students and 34 teachers at its peak.
“We could not control them,” Boru says, laughing.
In 2008, KANERE published its first collection of stories focusing on work from journalists in exile. Despite KANERE’s all-volunteer staff, Boru said he was able to print a few hundred print copies of the first edition. Those copies, along with a barebones online presence, helped KANERE reach “thousands of other vulnerable people,” he says.
Since then, KANERE has published dozens of editions ranging from human rights issues to security and environmental disasters, making it an invaluable resource for refugees, nonprofits, and human rights advocates alike.
“It’s a kind of human rights platform and campaigning platform, where people can express their views and have their opinions be heard,” he explains.
Most importantly, it provides a place for refugees to share their stories, rather than nonprofits or governments speaking for them, he adds.
“I feel there are so many egos that are only playing a public relations role—they are not speaking truths,” he says. “KANERE is speaking the truth.”
But despite being an invaluable resource, KANERE’s volunteer-only staff struggles to fund their work.
“Kakuma is very hard—the environment is very hostile and everything is very hard,” Boru says. “Because of [a lack of] resources, we are not able to publish regularly.”
A basic budget of about $1,500 to $2,000 a month would be enough to effectively produce a regular newspaper but until that funding is secured, KANERE is on hold.
Despite financial hardships, Boru remains proud of KANERE’s work in part, because it gives Kakuma refugees an opportunity to positively contribute to their community instead of just waiting to be resettled elsewhere.
“Refugees are capable people who are talented and able to work. They are people who need a space for public opinion. They are people who want to be heard. (Stories) about their lives and what affects them need to be told,” he says.
As for Boru, his wait for official resettlement continues, ten years after arriving in Kakuma Refugee Camp.
Offered a temporary student pass to study at a Nairobi university, Boru plans to continue supporting KANERE’s work, despite the publication’s continuing financial hardships.
“At KANERE, we have very amazing young reporters—people who are able to speak truth in places like Kakuma,” he says. “People should support this project because this is something that adds value to the lives of refugees.”