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East Africa

Losing one’s dignity

by Raphael Sungu

In brief

Too many people have nothing to do.

Too many people have nothing to do.

Many refugees make long journeys through dangerous terrain to the Kenyan refugee camp Kakuma. They suffer hunger and thirst and are exposed to cold, heat, heavy rains and brutal sunshine. On the run, many cannot change clothes or take showers. Some experience traumatising violence. But all want to guard their human dignity.

The denial of such dignity in the camps is a harrowing experience. People whose lives have been turned upside down must line up for basic provisions such as blankets, toiletries and food. When they first arrive at the reception centre to be registered, one can tell that some were previously influential people, perhaps government officials, but their weather-beaten suits, ties and shirts do not mean much in the camp. They no longer stand for any position or personal authority.

The situation is stressful for all persons concerned, including the aid workers. An international staff member recalls a man who arrived in the camp with children, and was giving everybody a difficult time. He did not manage to line up properly and was irritable. Our witness says: “I realised he was not angry at us – he was angry at the world, he was angry at what had made him this undignified person, reduced to queuing up to be fed by strangers. I found myself at the brink of crying; I felt his helplessness myself.”

The staff member says: “When I started to work here, I thought that refugees are just irritable, unappreciative complainants who are generally hard to understand.” He goes on to say that he made a conscious effort to talk to the people and understand their individual background and life stories. This was when fear gripped him because the refugees’ fate was “something that could happen to anyone”. Realising this made him think of his wife and children and “feel the deepest empathy for suffering fellow human beings”. (rs)

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