My first day back in Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp, I took a walk – and that simple freedom felt so good. After two years in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, always scared of the bombs and the bullets, strolling through the lanes of the settlement gave me a sense of peace.
Really a complex of now four camps in northeastern Kenya, Dadaab is still very familiar – the same bare, scrabbly ground, regimented huts, and communal taps. But some things have changed.
When I left in 2021 to try my luck back in my homeland of Somalia, it housed 234,000 mostly Somali refugees. Now, it feels a lot more congested. There has been a huge influx of people fleeing five seasons of drought across the border, as well as Somalia’s never-ending conflict.
In June, the previously closed Ifo 2 camp was reopened to shelter thousands of new families. Dagahaley camp, where I stayed prior to 2021 and where I stay again now, has also seen a spike in arrivals. The forest surrounding the small lake where I used to swim has been cleared for settlement.
Those fleeing Somalia are desperate – they’ve lost everything. But us refugees in Dadaab know there is no real future here either.
Unemployment in the Kenyan camps, even for school leavers, is much worse than I remember. The few good jobs available, like working for humanitarian agencies – earning around $100 a month – are disappearing fast as a funding crunch hits aid programmes. Food prices on the local market are soaring.
So why am I here?
I hated the insecurity in Mogadishu. I was making decent-enough money working as a freelance journalist and filmmaker – more than I could ever earn in Dadaab. But you can’t stay indoors: You have to be out and about on the streets, and with that comes risks.
One incident still stays with me. It was in April last year, and I was heading to the market in Hamar Weyne district to conduct an interview when there was an explosion. People were running helter-skelter, and I ran with them, finding shelter in a nearby building.
Gunshots were ringing out and I was trembling. I saw a tuk-tuk speeding past carrying a screaming woman, blood pouring from her legs. That’s when I said to myself: “My life is worth more than this.”
In my three decades in Dadaab, I never come across such horror. If you hear a gunshot, it was fired by the police, and it will still be talked about three weeks later.
Before I left Mogadishu, I felt things were getting worse. It wasn’t just the bombs and bullets – I was becoming a little more used to that – but I was also increasingly afraid of a crackdown by the authorities on journalists covering the al-Shabab insurgency.
When I said I write for foreign outlets, that seemed to enrage them. They hit me, said I was a spy working for foreign interests and – bizarrely – also a terrorist!
As the government ramps up its war against the jihadists in the countryside, the security forces are on increased alert in the city.
In June, I was stopped by plainclothes secret police who were questioning people and demanding IDs. They could see I was a journalist as I was carrying my tripod and camera, and they started to interrogate me.
They asked me what clan I’m from (I’m not Hawiye, who dominate Mogadishu). When I said I write for foreign outlets, that seemed to enrage them. They hit me, said I was a spy working for foreign interests and – bizarrely – also a terrorist! I was kept for 11 hours in a nearby police station, along with other suspects, in a crowded cell.
My second encounter was a month later. I had been wary about leaving the house after that experience, but I went to the shops. The security police were on the streets again. One of the men that stopped me last time recognised me – my heart sank.
Again he called me al-Shabab, slapped me, pulled out a pistol, took my phone, and ordered me not to talk back. They took me to another police station, and for a second time my aunt had to come to “bail me out” – a polite way of saying she paid a bribe.
That’s when I finally, unequivocally, decided I needed to get out of Mogadishu.
My journey back to Dadaab
Heading to the airport early one morning I remember staring at the city skyline, thinking how could I leave this beautiful city, where there are so many stories to tell? Wistful as that thought was, I was also grateful that I had a ticket in my pocket.
I flew to the southern port city of Kismayo, and a week later took a taxi to Dhobley – the last town before the border – in a six-seater taxi.
I was terrified we might be stopped at an al-Shabab checkpoint. I felt certain a young man like me would be detained or killed.
I left all my certificates from Dadaab behind in Kismayo, along with my phone and laptop. The driver warned us we would be passing through al-Shabab territory, and – fearing espionage – they have banned all electronic devices. They also don’t like any documents with aid agency logos, so I hid my refugee registration card.
On the road to Dhobley, you pass burnt-out vehicles torched by al-Shabab. They had been transporting the mildly narcotic khat leaf from Kenya, chewed by most men and some women in Somalia, but a custom that’s frowned upon by the austere jihadists.
I was terrified we might be stopped at an al-Shabab checkpoint. I felt certain a young man like me would be detained or killed. When we finally met some of the young gunmen at a small settlement outside Dhobley, they seemed uninterested. They asked the driver questions, looked in the boot of the taxi, and that was it.
I had planned answers to all their imagined questions, and was praying fervently. But we were never interrogated. The whole encounter lasted no more than 15 minutes.
After a nine-hour journey, we finally reached Dhobley, but before we could enter the town, we were quizzed by the Somali security forces. Their questioning was far lengthier and more serious.
The next day was the final leg – crossing the border and on to Dadaab. It was a different taxi and a new set of passengers: nine of us, six adults, and three children. These were farmers or herders who had lost nearly everything in the drought, and had sold the last of their assets for the transportation fare to Dadaab.
That day, after two and a half years away, I was back in Dagahaley camp. I’m living with my mother and three brothers again, my Mogadishu adventure over, a chapter in my life closed.
So what’s next?
The young people in Dadaab, graduating from school, have only a lifetime of dependency on humanitarian handouts ahead of them unless they can get accepted for resettlement abroad .
That’s my goal, the chance of a future in a third country like Canada or the United States. Just under half of all the friends I grew up with are now abroad. I’ve been in Dadaab since the age of two, so why not me?
Kenya has been a kind host, but the government has been talking about an integration programme for the past two years. We are yet to see any progress.
I’ve applied before and was turned down – it seems such a random exercise: You’re either lucky or not. So I’m going to try again.
There are two other options available to refugees: integration in Kenya, or repatriation to Somalia. I’ve tried the latter. I had fond ideas of making it in my homeland – I’m not trying it again.
The Kenyan government has passed a new enlightened refugee law that recognises the contribution we can make to the local economy by becoming self-reliant. The idea is that freedom to work and putting down proper roots will free us from the camps and aid handouts.
Kenya has been a kind host, but the government has been talking about an integration programme for the past two years. We are yet to see any progress. It’s easy to link this to the way we refugees have been associated in the minds of some politicians with al-Shabab – just because we are Somali.
I would welcome integration if it becomes a reality, but we know it’s dependent on investment by the government and by donors. And there’s no real sign of that yet.
In the meantime, I’m grateful for the refuge Dadaab provides. My situation has been a journey from fear to freedom. I praise God that at least I'm still alive.