Home » ‘Why are you going back, after all we did to get out?’: returning to the Kenyan refugee camp that shaped my childhood

‘Why are you going back, after all we did to get out?’: returning to the Kenyan refugee camp that shaped my childhood

by CKG Editor

By Aamna Mohdin

The earliest memories of my life are from the Kakuma refugee camp. I remember walking through a marketplace, staying close to my mother’s side. It is hot, the Kenyan sun’s rays so fierce I can’t stop squinting. At one point I turn to my left and see an incredibly thin man sitting on the floor. I stop and stare at him until my mum tells me off. I’m too scared to look back at him as we walk farther ahead, but I feel both drawn to him and terrified by his suffering.

I have another memory of asking my mum if we could get a drink, either a Fanta or a juice shake, during a warm evening. The heat doesn’t feel unpleasant. There are others in the living room of our shanty accommodation. My mum is in a deep conversation, but it goes over my head. She agrees, but I am not sure if she takes me herself or someone else does.

In the next memory, I have the drink in my hand and am looking up at warm washes of red, yellow and lights. They remind me now of fairy lights. I spend the rest of the evening watching a film on a TV that we all crowd around. I have no idea what we watched, but my mum tells me that Bollywood films, dubbed into Somali, were a regular feature in the camp.

I remember how scared I used to be of going to the toilet, which was just two imprints of feet and a hole in the ground. At five, I was small enough to fall in.

Kakuma is also the place where I contracted malaria and almost died. I remember lying in a bed in what could have either been a room or a tent. In this memory, my mum is sitting in a chair beside me. She looks anxious, her face stricken. I remember wanting to put a smile on her face; I remember pretending to have a seizure, shaking my body and stopping only when I was racked with laughter.

My therapist doesn’t think this memory is very funny. “What do you think you were trying to do in that moment,” she asked me when I first told her about  it.

“I was trying to be a jokester,” I said. “I guess I was trying to lighten the mood.”

“And what did you need in that room?”

I shrugged, but she pushed me, so I closed my eyes and went back to that bed, to that moment.

“I needed my mum to tell me I would be OK,” I said. And I felt it again; the deep emotional pain that reverberated around my childhood self.

The type of stories from Kakuma I get from my mum are dependent on her mood. She loved the friends she made and the stories that different people told late into the night. She loved the comradeship in life’s most basic tasks, from cooking to cleaning. She loved that I was surrounded by so many children and adults who cared for me. We never felt alone.

My family and I ended up in Kakuma after fleeing the devastating Somali civil war. The UNHCR camp was home to thousands of refugees from various countries, including Somalia, Sudan and Ethiopia. It still is.

I have been interviewing my parents, my Mama and Baba, since 2020. They told me of their extraordinary journey from their life of relative normalcy in Somalia to becoming stateless refugees and then, finally, British citizens. They did so with their wry sense of humour, often teasing each other.

“Who had more damage from the civil war?” Mama asked Baba during one of my interviews. “I have seen more suffering than you. No question.”

“But did someone with a gun put you against a wall and try to kill you?” Baba quipped back.

My mother laughed and shook her head. “No, that’s nothing. I was pregnant! Can you imagine? I was alone and in pain. I didn’t speak the language. Anything could have happened.”

Baba didn’t have a retort to that. Mama, sensing victory, dealt her triumphant blow: “Exactly, chill out!”

I don’t remember my last night in the camp, or leaving it. Did I understand then the life-changing journey I was about to embark on?
Slowly, they filled in the gaps of the people they were before they became war survivors and my parents; and of who I was before I became a British citizen. But there is so much I don’t know about life in Kakuma refugee camp. I don’t have any real sense of how long I was there. Mum has given me several answers: either a year, a year and a half or just under two years. She doesn’t remember the exact month and year we entered, nor the month and year we left.

I don’t remember my last night in the camp, or leaving it. Did I understand then the life-changing journey I was about to embark on? Was I sad to be leaving the school, to be leaving the friends I had made? What, if anything, could we comprehend about what lay ahead?

I ask my mum what made her decide to leave the camp and take our destinies into her own hands, instead of waiting for a resettlement decision through UNHCR. She says that she found herself unable to keep waiting for our lives to begin. I was growing up quickly and she didn’t want me to be one of the young people who would spend their entire lives there.

We couldn’t afford to get a plane, so we paid to be driven all the way to Nairobi – a journey that can take between 13 and 16 hours, depending on the route. My dad was waiting for us in Nairobi in a hotel. He had smuggled himself through the Kenyan border from Ethiopia without a passport. I realise I don’t have any memories of my dad before coming to Europe. This small fact doesn’t startle me, it just fills me with a strange, muted feeling. An acceptance that borders on pain.

Our joy from the reunion was shortlived. My mother and I were set to embark on a dangerous journey. I don’t remember my final night in Nairobi as a refugee. My mum tells me I was excited and wouldn’t go to sleep. My cheerfulness only deepened her anxiety and she had to stop herself from being annoyed with me. I was eager to throw myself into the unknown in the way that only children are able to do. She was consumed by all the things that could end up going wrong.

My parents had paid a hefty bribe to Kenyan officials to let us go through immigration. My dad’s friend went with us as we passed through the different checkpoints at the airport. The man left our side only once he saw us boarding the plane. He went to find my dad, who was pacing outside, and told him that his wife and child were on the plane.

We landed in Germany in 1998. The airport was busy with people, yet at the same time lifeless. I remember being struck by the grey and silver interior, by the escalators and, most importantly, by all the white people. I felt out of place and clung to my mum.

We were taken into a room by two officials and told to wait. Once they left, my mum turned around to me and handed me some money to hide. She tucked it into my chest and told me to hold on to it. I nodded.

I had seen my dad a handful of times in the first six years or so of my life

Two female guards returned. I stood back as they strip-searched my mum. She undressed calmly, even smiling back at them and at me. They kept their smiles on their faces, trying perhaps to reassure us. I wanted to scream, but I was incapable of making a sound. They patted my mum down. She looked cold. I stood frozen beside her.

I don’t remember how long the strip-search lasted, but I was relieved when they let my mum put her clothes back on. She looked so small without them. I was scared I would be next, but we were allowed to leave the room. We left the airport, but that room stayed with me. I did not know then how often I would come back to it, how it would go on to shape the way I understood Black bodies, including my own. However much time passes, I still find myself walking back into that room in my memory, stepping into the shoes of that terrified child looking up at my mum as she undresses.

We were provided with temporary accommodation and moved to a one-bedroom flat. I remember it clearly, its layout and how the entire place brightened when the curtains were open and the sun was allowed to look in. I fell in love with it almost instantly and would walk in and out of the rooms that were our own; from the small kitchen to the bathroom, to the hallway, to the bedroom and our living room. I couldn’t believe we had the place to ourselves.

I had seen my dad a handful of times in the first six years or so of my life. When he joined us in Germany, I met him like a stranger. But I was excited that he was there and my family were together once again. I  remember the smile on my mum’s face when he came into the flat. I ran to him and hugged him tight.

My life in the months that followed kicked into high gear. After years of waiting around as refugees, suddenly everything was happening all at once. My parents had decided that the UK, where my mum had family, was the best destination. First we went to the Netherlands to stay with members of Dad’s family who lived in The Hague. We lived with my great-aunt’s children, who were beautiful teenage girls. I was desperate to emulate everything about them, from their sense of fashion to the way they laughed. They took me to restaurants, to the local funfair and to hang with their friends.

I have no memory of leaving The Hague, nor of travelling alone to London, where my mum’s two eldest sisters had resettled with their children. I don’t even remember saying goodbye to my parents. Was I scared or excited? Of all the things I don’t remember, this is what I am most frustrated by.

I have vague, dark memories of waiting for my aunt Amina in a house in London that felt cold and uninviting. I was relieved when she walked through those doors and took me into her warm embrace. I kept smiling and giggling as I sat in the front passenger seat of the car as we drove away, the joy feeling like small bubbles popping off across my skin.

By this point, I was months shy of being seven. I remember I ate McDonald’s for the first time and only liked the chips. I gave my burger to a teenage cousin who let me borrow his watch. I watched my first English-speaking film, The Lion King, and was saddened that Simba’s father’s death was permanent, that he didn’t ever return.

My life went on as I waited for my parents to join me. They were still in the Netherlands, making attempts to cross over. I slotted into Amina’s family easily: it was a loving house and each day was filled with some adventure. My aunt was particularly sensitive to my needs in those early days, showering me with presents so I never felt lacking. One sunny day, she bought me a pink bike. I hugged her as tight as I could when she showed it to me. Once she got training wheels put on, I learned to ride around the neighbourhood in east London, with her encouraging me.

I don’t remember learning English. My memories jump from not knowing the language in my first few days in the country to suddenly speaking it fluently. Maybe it was just that easy. I wasn’t an exceptional ­student, but I found myself doing well enough in those first few months.

When my mum arrived, we all crowded around the door; I stood at the back. She was wearing jeans and a jumper, and had her hair in two plaits. I don’t think I had ever seen her in such clothes before. She didn’t look like my mum; she looked like a teenager.

I ran towards her then and noticed something when I hugged her: a small bump. She was pregnant. I was confused, excited and, I realise now, decades later, a little bit sad. Before she arrived in the UK, she was only ever my mum. As I held tightly on to her, I knew the borders of the relationship we had had changed for ever.

Mohdin at a book and sportswear shop at the camp. Photograph: Courtesy of Aamna Mohdin

Once my mum had been able to find a house for us to live in, near my aunt in the east London borough of Newham, she sat me down and asked me a question. “Do you want to live with me?” Mama asked, looking into my eyes. My life had been so disrupted, she didn’t want to bring more unwanted change. I answered easily and immediately: “I want to live with you. I always want to live with you.”

When we spoke about this moment, years later, we laughed about it. “You always knew who your mum was,” she said.

On the day my father was supposed to arrive, I sat on the stairs that led up to our flat. I don’t remember how long it took him to smuggle himself from the Netherlands into the UK, but I imagine it was a few months after my mum arrived. I sat for hours, looking at the door. I kept telling myself that today would be the day I got my family back, that we would finally be complete, that I would be whole.

My mum, then heavily pregnant, came to the landing with a solemn face. She said my father wouldn’t be arriving; there had been another problem. I burst into tears and got up to walk to my room, but as I did so the door opened and there he was, smiling from ear to ear. I didn’t have time to be angry at my mum’s joke. My dad ran up the stairs. I cried into him when he lifted me into his arms and held me there.

The days and weeks that followed were momentous. It was the first time in my life, and the first time since my parents became parents, that we lived together, permanently, in a house that was our own. We had nowhere to go; it wasn’t a pitstop to the next destination. We could plant roots here and they could go as deep as we wanted.

When I see the camp from the plane, I am taken aback by just how large it is. It’s 2022 and I am a journalist at the Guardian who has reported on Europe’s refugee crisis for more than half a decade. I am flying to Kakuma on a UNHCR flight with aid agency workers. I will be staying in the camp for four days.

When I told my parents I was going, my dad congratulated me, but my mum was annoyed. “Why are you going back?” I laughed off her question, but she insisted that it wasn’t safe and that she didn’t want me to go. I told her I had to; that it was important to me. She sighed. “After all we did to get out?”

I take a deep breath when we land at 12.30pm. All the logistics that have yet to be organised buzz around me: how will I get to the hotel from the airport? Could I just walk into the camp and meet people at random? I feel small on that runway and question why I have come. What am I hoping to achieve?

Stepping out of the plane, I see young children and several women looking at us through barbed wire fences. An aid worker tells me many in the camp love to see the plane land and leave.

I check into my hotel, which is a few minutes’ walk from the camp. It was built by a former Somali refugee who had resettled in Canada and become quite successful. The hotel is staffed exclusively by refugees from the camp. It is at the hotel’s restaurant where I meet with Pauline, UNHCR’s on-site communication specialist. She wears a white T-shirt with leggings and has a beautiful smile. We instantly strike up a friendship. We are soon joined by Yannick, a photojournalist and film-maker, who agrees to be my fixer in the camp. He is 28 and a refugee himself, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “Welcome back to K-Town,” he says, after I introduce myself.

We talk about the weather and how lucky I am that it is cloudy. Whenever my mum and I spoke about Kakuma, she always complained about the heat. After we have lunch, we walk towards the camp. We cross the barrier. What had gone through my mum’s mind when she first entered the camp? She had been in her early 20s, younger than I am now.

A market at the camp. Photograph: Courtesy of Aamna Mohdin

We walk to an Ethiopian cafe, which sells the best coffee in Kakuma, I am told, and then to the Somali market, which is a maze of shops selling clothes, books, suitcases, fresh fruit and even mattresses.

“How does it feel to be back?” Pauline asks.

I am honest. “I’m not sure yet.”

I stop to speak to one Somali female shopkeeper, Faduma, who I am told has lived in Kakuma since 1992. The time period she has called this place home spans my entire life. She doesn’t recognise me as Somali. “What is your mother’s name?” she asks. I tell her but there is no light of recognition on her face.

Faduma tells me her eldest child is studying in Canada at a university. They had won a scholarship, she says, proudly. “It is incredibly rare for camp residents to get a scholarship to a western country. Only around one in a thousand students manage it,” Pauline tells me. I wonder how difficult it is for students, born or raised in Kakuma, to choose between taking the incredible opportunity to study abroad and start a new life, but leave loved ones behind, or stay and be stuck, too.

Another shopkeeper, who is also a Somali woman, joins our conversation. “What tribe are you?” It is one of a handful times in my life when I am directly asked this question. I tell her I don’t know.

We decide to call it a day and walk out of the camp, but as we do I hear people singing. I walk back towards the sound and I see it is a church choir practising. They sit in a circle and follow the instructions of the leader of the group, a short man with a guitar who stands in the middle. They invite me in and let me sit as they rehearse. “You are most welcome here,” the leader says. I smile as they sing several songs for us.

Pauline and I then go to the restaurant and bar just outside the camp. It caters to refugees, residents and humanitarians. I excuse myself to use the toilet. “It might be better to wait until you return to your hotel. These toilets are like the ones at the camp,” Pauline says with a grimace.

“Oh I remember the camp toilets. I’ve used them before and can do so again,” I tell her and walk to the toilet. I smile when I am confronted with the hole in the floor that terrified me as a child.

I return and we watch the sunset, a yellow-orange blaze that slowly turns into black. It is beautiful. Did I enjoy watching sunsets here as a child, too? New memories did not come flooding back as I walked through the camp. Instead, I feel I can finally claim the memories I already have as my own. Until now, it had felt as though my childhood in Kakuma happened to someone else. But I could finally see them in Technicolor: the brown of the mud, the bright pastel colours of the market.

I think of my mum. I think of the people we shared our living encampment with. I can’t see their faces, just wrap myself in the way they once made me feel.

Kakuma is crucial to everything else that came after it. It is the foundation of who I am. I was here then and am here now. There is great power in telling myself that. It centres me.

The days at Kakuma quickly blend into each other. Yannick asks me often whether I am remembering my time in the camp any more clearly, but I politely say no. I just have to believe it was me who once lived here and not some other child.

During my final lunch with Yannick, I ask if he knows of any young people from the camp who turn to people smugglers to try to get to Europe. “Many left to take their chances on the boats in 2014 and 2015,” Yannick tells me.

Do you know what happened to them, I ask.

“No, I haven’t heard back from any of them,” says Yannick. “I think many of them died.”

Have you ever been tempted to take this risk?

He shakes his head: “No, never.” He would rather make a living and a life for himself in Kakuma. He would rather wait and see.

My thoughts turn to my mum – not as I know her now, but the mother she was to me in Kakuma. She faced the same impossible decision. She was just 24 then. If she had waited for resettlement, I could still be here. Our leaving meant that we risked imprisonment or death. What would I have done in her position?

I get some internet data and send a message to my mum. I have so much I want to say, but I don’t know how to put it into words. I tell her I love her and that I miss her. For now, that will have to be enough.

I was 15 when my mum passed the UK citizenship test. When she did, something dramatic quietly happened to me: I stopped being a stateless person. I have always felt grateful for my British citizenship, but it’s not until this trip that I start to come to terms with the magnitude of what it means to have a country I can call home.

I realise that night in Kakuma that I am at a midway point, looking at a life split in two: half lived as a refugee and half as a citizen of one of the richest countries in the world. Every moment after this coming birthday – every day, every hour, every minute that follows – will mean I have lived longer as Aamna, the British citizen, than anything else. The distance between me and the refugee I was, and those in the camp today, will grow wider and wider.

I am glad I have come back. I don’t want to walk into the coming chapters of my life completely untethered from the past. I don’t want to forget what happened to me and my family, and I don’t want to turn a blind eye to the refugees who live today.

I feel strained that night, like the versions of myself I contain are threatening to collapse in on me. I sit with all that I was and all that I am. Here, tonight, in Kakuma, I experienced the homecoming of a refugee. And now, I am experiencing another homecoming – to myself.

This is an edited extract from Scattered: The Making and Unmaking of a Refugee by Aamna Mohdin, published by Bloomsbury Circus on 6 June, priced £18.99. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

Source –  TheGuardian

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