Refugee Nightmares in East Africa

ACORN International International


    New Orleans       No questions in my mind.  We need to be long gone from Afghanistan.  Also, no questions in my mind that the scenes at the airport and the chaos of the evacuation are heart rending.  I hold my breath that for all of the real and crocodile tears being shed in the political aisles, that we will not just fulfill the president’s pledge to get all Americans home, but will also stand strong and welcoming to refugees and allies who have been at our side, whether we were right or wrong.

Too much of this was on my mind as I joined a Zoom call on a recent Saturday morning with the head organizer of ACORN Kenya in Nairobi and a great friend and comrade familiar both personally and professionally with the long-standing border and refugee crisis in East Africa dating to the civil war in Sudan.  The war ended with independence for South Sudan, one of the newest countries on the globe, but the situation remains fraught and dangerous, and displaced refugees remain unsettled after more than 20 years.

The call had been organized by veterans of a church-based charity called Hope for South Sudan, and was truly international with participants in the Bay Area of California, the United Kingdom, Kenya, and the Gulf Coast.  The charity, largely based in the western district of the Episcopal Church, had raised more than $2 million from four or five parishes that supported hundreds of scholarships for the well-known Lost Boys in the diaspora of that conflict.  The charity wound down with the last forty finishing their education, and the boys, now men, are in the process of trying to pick up the torch and move forward in east Africa.

The Kakuma refugee camp, still housing perhaps 200,000 refugees and their families, is at the center of this story.  The camp is located in Kenya, near the border of South Sudan.  I had recently read of the near starvation rations the United Nations High Commission for Refugees is providing.  I was shocked.  The amount they were saying should last one-month was hardly what ACORN India is providing for two weeks in dealing with the pandemic crisis there.  Refugees are not allowed to get a work permit by Kenya, even though Kakuma is jointly run by the Kenyan government.  The road between Juba, the capital of South Sudan, and Nairobi runs through Kakuma, and without a Kenyan work permit and registration you cannot get past the camp, which has made it as much a prison as a shelter.

All of these issues hung over the call, as the westerners tried to turn the reins over to the young men now fully schooled, and trying to pick up the pieces and move forward as an African-based and led organization.  Could they register as an organization in Kenya?  No, we answered, not without Kenyans.  The ACORN Kenya Trust is our registered affiliate, and we offered to house them temporarily as a project of the trust, if that was helpful.  We asked what the purpose of their organization would be?  They were still in the planning process.  If scholarships, no need to register in Africa.  If something more suited to Kakuma and the Kenya contradictions, that would be a different matter.  We could provide training and some connections, if that was useful, but who knew.  All of this was a terribly difficult situation with no easy decisions, despite the best of intentions by one and all.

The situation in Afghanistan is likely to be no better.  We see the scenes of people trying to reach the United States or Europe, but even more may be in Pakistan and other bordering countries, where we will undoubtedly read of new refugee camps soon as well.  Without real international understanding and assistance and home country cooperation, will this last another generation as it recedes from the headlines, creating more Kakumas?