Written by Phyllis Richards
The day begins early for Soraya Musau at Dagahaley refugee camp.
The emergency officer for ACT member the Lutheran World Federation is out of her tent by 5am, waking her staff for another demanding day. By this time newly arrived refugees from Somalia have already begun to gather outside the gates of the compound, seeking food, water, basic necessities – and hope.
The camp is one of three in the Dadaab complex in eastern Kenya, all managed by LWF.
Dagahaley is now receiving the most new refugees – on some days more than the other two camps combined. The highest figure at Dagahaley alone was 1,536 in one day, while the total for the three camps has reached more than 60,000 since the refugee emergency was declared on June 6.
Welcoming new arrivals
The crowds are mostly patient and quiet as they wait to enter the reception centre. Some carry bundles of belongings. Many have nothing but their children. All are hungry and exhausted after a journey from Somalia that can take more than three weeks on foot.
For Soraya and her 11 staff, the task is a daunting one.
In the next few hours, all these people have to be guided through the newly-constructed reception center. Their names will be recorded by government officials. Everyone will be given a colored and numbered wristband, entitling them to food for 21 days and a selection of other goods, such as jerry cans for water, cooking pots, sleeping mats and other essentials to ensure their immediate survival.
Their children also will be inoculated and receive milk, shoes and clothing donated by the local Muslim community to fill in gaps in provision by the international community.
Main coordinating role
The whole operation comes under the heading of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees but every stage is the responsibility of a different non-governmental organization – the implementing partners (IP) in humanitarian aid speak.
Soraya and her team are right in the middle.
“I am the focal person for the government, the UNHCR and the IPs,” says Soraya, 30, from Nairobi. “If there are issues with water, I call one agency, if there are issues with feeding, I call another. I am the first person to know and then I get in touch with the relevant IP.
“If they need any information, they come to me. I get information from them, so that we can then give the beneficiaries accurate information,” she adds. She spends many hours each day on her mobile phone.
The first task of the team, however, is to quickly identify the most vulnerable people in the queuing crowd. These are the unaccompanied children, those with an old person or someone who is handicapped. They are brought to the front to begin the process first.
The remaining crowd is then divided by family size, with the largest going first. Men on their own go through last, many impatient to be reunited with their wives and families who traveled before them from Somalia.
It is a long, tiring, dusty process for all involved. And it is a process that is replicated by staff at the other two camps of Ifo and Hagadera.
Tempers do occasionally fray but most of the refugees seem to lack the energy for any form of confrontation. Soraya has only one security person in her team to help with crowd control, although there is a big security presence in the reception center itself.
The emergency team follows the refugees through the whole process, with a strong emphasis on information. Three of her Kenyan staff are information officers whose job is to constantly tell the refugees about what services are available and where they can come if they have problems. Another two are social workers, able to take early notice of particular needs.
She also has five “incentive staff” drawn from existing refugees at the camp who act as translators and give support for the other functions.
One of the biggest messages that all are pushing is that all the things being provided are free of charge. This is in order to counter a small number of unscrupulous local businesspersons who tell the refugees that they must pay – even for the land on which to build a makeshift shelter. Staff wear t-shirts with the message: “Land is for free, do not sell or buy it in the refugee camp”. This is underlined by large banners at the centers.
After eight weeks of this punishing routine, where the day can go on until 11pm, all the effort is taking its toll.
“Both myself and the staff are really worn out,” says Soraya, the day before reluctantly leaving for a well-earned week’s break at home. “But I really don’t want to leave my center.”
One incident in particular has made a great impact on her. On June 30 there were riots among the new arrivals outside Dagahaley, which led to two people being shot dead by police and a further 18 injured. All the staff were evacuated and didn’t re-open the reception center until two days later. They found that there had been some tragic new arrivals during the night.
“A family had travelled for 22 days and arrived at 4am. But one of their children died in the night, a one-and-a-half-year-old girl. When I woke up and found that, it was heartbreaking,” says Soraya.
But she adds that they have to carry on and remain functional, otherwise they are of no use to the refugees.
“A case like that really shakes you. But on that day 1,318 people came, so you didn’t have the time to respond emotionally,” says Soraya. “At the end of the day you do recall and recount what you have seen. It’s what makes you get up at 5am.”