Refugee stories | Refugee Economics
A reporting project investigating the economic impact of refugee crises.
refugee, refugees, economics, humanitarian, foreign aid, migration, displacement,
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These stories have been compiled during our trips to Uganda and Kenya in the Spring of 2016. Unless they specified they were comfortable using their full names, we’re only using the first names of the people we’ve interviewed to ensure their safety. We’ve also withheld any sensitive information they gave about their situation, including criticism of governments and international organisations such as the UN Refugee Agency and the World Food Programme. During our reporting, the lack of safety and protection has appeared as a key barrier to the economic activity and general well-being of refugees.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) uses the term “asylum seeker” to refer to people who have fled their home countries and have applied for refugee status. The term “refugee” is used for people whose asylum claim has been accepted, and now have the official status of refugee. “Internally displaced people” describes individuals who have fled conflict or disasters, but remain within their countries’ borders. Obtaining refugee status can have vastly different impacts on one’s life, depending on national laws and regulations. While the 1951 Refugee Convention grants several rights to refugees like the right to work, primary education or freedom of movement, these are not applied uniformly across countries.

Among the people we’ve met, many don’t fit into these official categories. For instance, some Somali nationals living in Nairobi have acquired Kenyan identification papers through legal or illegal means, and can enjoy the benefits of citizenship, including working or owning businesses. Others have seen their asylum claims rejected and have obtained work visas instead. Some will leave to other African countries or to Europe in search of better opportunities, a journey that could result in their being perceived as undocumented or illegal migrants rather than refugees.

George and Esmail run a wholesale business and a shop in the Kakuma refugee camp located in northwestern Kenya, importing goods from Asia and the Middle East. George is originally from South Sudan, while Esmail is from Darfur (in southwestern Sudan). They were business partners before having to flee their respective regions, and chose to keep on working together while in exile.

Elias is an artist originally from Ethiopia, and has been living in Kakuma for 25 years. He buys art supplies from friends who are authorized to travel to the capital, Nairobi. Elias, who says life in the camp has worsened since food rations given by the World Food Programme have been cut, has given up on the idea of having a family. “I don’t want to to bring another innocent child to survive in this place,” he explains.

Nuriitu is a cook in a popular Ethiopian restaurant located in the oldest part of Kakuma. She arrived from Ethiopia with her three children in 2003. While some refugees receive help from relatives abroad in the form of remittances, Nuriitu’s brother, who lives in Canada, isn’t able to help. Her only resource apart from her salary is the food distributed by the World Food Programme.

Mouna is 17 years old and lives with her mother and four siblings in Kakuma. The family runs a small convenience store that generates about 500 Kenyan shillings (USD$5) per day, and receives no extra income since Mouna’s father, who had stayed behind in Somalia to work, passed away. Mouna dreams of getting married to her boyfriend, Ahmed, but the cost of a wedding and of a new shelter is prohibitive.

Mesfin “The Millionaire” Getahun is a wholesaler, running what is perhaps Kakuma’s largest refugee-run business. Once a soldier in Ethiopia, Mesfin started over in Kakuma, doing odd jobs and gradually building up savings. Instead of protecting his activity from competition, he mentored other refugees and invested in their stores, thereby creating a growing network of businesses that resell his products throughout the camp.

The “old” section of Kakuma, established in 1992, is populated mainly by Ethiopian and Somali refugees. The camp currently hosts over 192,000 people.

Neema, a Congolese refugee living in Uganda’s capital city, Kampala, runs a wholesale jewellery store with her husband in a downtown shopping mall. Their merchandise is imported from China and sold to buyers living in Uganda and nearby countries like Burundi or Sudan. Refugees living in Uganda are allowed to create their own businesses outside of refugee settlements.

Floribert Bulongo Zekundu, a physician hailing from South Kivu, in the DRC, founded a private low-cost health clinic to improve access to healthcare for refugees living in the Nsambya neighbourhood of Kampala. Foreign doctors and nurses are technically allowed to work in Uganda, but Floribert says the certification process is costly and difficult to obtain, preventing many of his colleagues to seek employment.

Alice, from the DRC, launched a textile business in Kampala’s Central Business District in 2006 with a small donation she received from her mother. Many among her staff of 16 are also refugees. About 15% of her clients are Ugandans, she says, while others come from neighbouring countries. From high tariffs to lack of access to capital and competition from China, Alice identifies many factors that prevent her business from growing.

Abdirahman Sheik Mahi is a volunteer teacher at a program for dyslexic students in Kisenyi, a neighbourhood of Kampala where many Somali refugees reside. The class was founded because Abdirahman and his colleagues from the Somali Youth Development Project could not find a course to help their students anywhere in the city.

Ajabu Mwanjale, 27, arrived in Kampala from the DRC in 2011 and is now running a photography studio in the Nsambya neighbourhood, where many Congolese nationals reside.

Eastleigh is a neighbourhood in Nairobi (Kenya’s capital city) historically populated with Somali migrants, and now with refugees from nearby countries. A vibrant centre for international trade, Eastleigh is thought to be bringing millions of dollars each year to the Kenyan economy in tax revenue, although government figures have never been publicly released.

Ahmed is a 20-year-old Somali refugee living in Eastleigh, Nairobi. Dreaming of a better future, he left his family in 2015 to travel to Europe, hoping to cross the Mediterranean by boat. Once on the Egyptian coast, Ahmed realised how dangerous the journey could be, and chose to return home. He’s now considering leaving again, despite the risks involved.

Aden Hassan Tarah grew up with his family in the world’s biggest refugee camp, Dadaab, in northeastern Kenya. He now works a journalist, shuttling between Nairobi and Dadaab, and often assists international NGOs and media in their visits to the camp. Aden became the main provider of the family after his parents passed away.

Kadija, 23, fled Ethiopia in 2011 alone. Like many other refugees, she lost contact with her relatives and doesn’t know where they are. She now lives with friends in Eastleigh and works as a cook in a restaurant. Having left school at age 13, Kadija dreams of studying again, finding better work and having a family of her own.

Aideed, 18, arrived in Eastleigh in 2013, having lost his entire family in the civil conflict that has affected Somalia for over 25 years. He borrowed money from members of the local Somali community to become a taxi driver. Aideed says the most difficult part of living in Eastleigh as a refugee is the frequent harassment from the police and from local Kenyans.