Mahdi’s Story – Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya

Posted on April 20, 2015 by ELCA World Hunger

Gina Tonn

​The Kakuma Refugee Camp in northwest Kenya is host to 180,000 individuals,[1] more than 100,000 of whom are children. Since its establishment in 1992, the camp has become home to refugees from South Sudan, Sudan, Burundi, Ethiopia, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Grants from ELCA World Hunger, in partnership with the Lutheran World Federation Department for World Service (LWF-DWS) Kenya-Djibouti Program, help to support programming for children in the camp.

A March 2015 update from the  Kenya-Djibouti Program states that the core of its work in Kakuma for the coming year will focus on education, child protection and community services.  ELCA World Hunger is directly supporting the Anti-Child Labor Campaign project for 2015.  The Anti-Child Labor Campaign will focus on increasing advocacy capacity through trainings for community-based organizing within the Kenyan host community and working to improve school environments with in the Kakuma Refugee Camp. The campaign seeks to offer children protection and support by increasing access to education for children who have been subject to child-labor violations throughout Turkana West District and within Kakuma Refugee Camp. According to the LWF DWS Kenya-Djibouti Program website, the organization is committed to protecting the rights to life, survival and development of children who call the Kakuma Refugee camp home.

Mahdi Riek Khor is a South Sudanese refugee, Kakuma resident, elected community leader, Child Protection Community Development Worker, aspiring politician, and only 23 years old. Thanks to the LWF Kenya-Djibouti Program, we are able to share his story with you:

Mahdi - Kakuma

Mahdi says, “Me, one day, if God is willing, I want to be a politician. As a politician I will maintain peace. I will be transparent, I will consider different cultures and I will accept being corrected. As a politician, I will consider any human being as a somebody.”

In December 2013, Mahdi became the first secondary school graduate in his family and was returning home to Bentiu to see his mother after 13 years apart, when violent hostilities disrupted his journey. ‘Fighting reached Unity State on the 19th of December. I remember it. There was a lot of destruction – guns, killings, arbitrary arrests, rape of women and girls. I had to come to Kakuma for safety.’

Mahdi is one of more than 45,000 people to reach Kakuma Refugee Camp, in north western Kenya, since December 2013 – among almost 2 million South Sudanese people to have become displaced inside or outside the country in the same period: ‘Life is a struggle in Kakuma. I can’t meet my basic needs. I am providing for 9 nieces and nephews. I don’t have good shelter, I’m not comfortable in the environment, there are no televisions to watch the news and learn about the world. Now the only world I know is inside Kakuma.’

Despite this, Mahdi is among 90 refugees who work with LWF as Child Protection Community Development Workers, working to prevent and respond to child protection issues across the camp’s population of 101,000 children. In Kakuma IV, the camp’s newest area, the team is supporting children with various protection concerns: children separated from their parents and family, children who have experienced or witnessed notable violence, children vulnerable to sexual exploitation and abuse – most of whom have lost everything and need much more than agencies can provide. ‘Child Protection work is very, very hard,’ Mahdi says. ‘It’s the working environment, going door to door, walking very far when the condition is too hot. We have a problem with promises. We want to help but we can’t always fulfil [needs], so some people see us as an enemy. They think we are lying.’

Refugees working to protect children in their own camp communities show courage and commitment. The work is challenging, resources are limited and cultural practices often conflict with the rights that workers are trying to promote. Mahdi considered the question of why he continues with the work. ‘I want to encourage children… Life has many challenges… it is my responsibility to help protect people. These cases, when you can resolve a situation, reunite a child with their family. I reunited two children with their parents and the children were most happy. They were so, so happy. That’s why we do the work.’

It is easy to imagine Mahdi as a very successful leader in the future. ‘Here in Kakuma, we hope that opportunity will come. Kakuma teaches us to live in a hard situation but I see now that I have met people here I would not have met outside. You can learn from different nationalities – their culture, their attitudes, we can learn from them.’ And in the meantime, Mahdi is working hard to support children in Kakuma – considering every child as a somebody.

ELCA World Hunger is proud to be a part of LWF Department of World Service’s ongoing commitment to education and development for children, and protection of rights and wellbeing for all children at Kakuma and around the world.

​Madhi’s profile written and provided courtesy of the LWF Kenya-Djibouti Program

Gina Tonn is a Program Assistant for Education and Constituent Engagement with ELCA World Hunger through a placement in the Lutheran Volunteer Corps. 

[1] UNHCR, February 2015

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