Today, Thursday, June 20, is World Refugee Day. From the greater East Africa region there are 5.25 million refugees from the five major countries listed below plus smaller numbers from other countries such as Burundi and Ethiopia. See the map below.

My first experience in Africa was in 1964-65 when I taught Rwanda refugees in the Muyenzi Refugee Camp in northwest Tanzania near the Burundi/Rwanda border. I learned about all the psychology, emotional, and physical problems that refugees face. Most are angry and bitter and dream of going back to their former home and life, but deep down realize that this is an impossible dream. Even if they go back, they will have to start their life all over again. Since I taught primary school students, they were torn between their elders’ desire to return/revenge and their need to chart a life of their own. One of the questions at that time was whether to learn English rather than French, which was still spoken in Rwanda then.

In 2014 I visited the Kakuma Refugee Camp in northwestern Kenya near the South Sudan and Uganda borders. In many ways the situation in the Kakuma Refugee Camp is bleaker than that in my old Muyenzi Refugee Camp.

In Muyenzi there were about 7,000 refugees. As of November last year there were 186,692 registered refugees in the Kakuma Refugee Camp. This is an overwhelming number and makes the camp equivalent to the seventh largest city in Kenya.

In Muyenzi people could cultivate and grow food. Kakuma Refugee Camp is in the driest, hottest part of Kenya. The average rainfall is only 12.5 inches (32 centimeters), but varies considerably from year to year. Shortly before I visited the camp, it had not rained for 20 months. Then when it does rain, it pours and floods. It is impossible to grow crops. There is no grass so that there are no cows. The local Turkana people keep camels, goats, and sheep. In the Kakuma Refugee Camp, UNHCR has to pump water for people to use. They do not pump sufficient quantities of water so the women line up five gallon jerry cans to fill when the water comes. Since the water is scarce, this leads to many conflicts as some people try to cut in line or obtain more water than others. Fresh water was never a problem in the Muyenzi Refugee Camp.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) assumed that the Rwanda refugees could grow sufficient food to feed themselves after a few growing seasons, but this takes more than a few growing seasons. The year that I was there saw a major hail storm wipe on the bean crop. UNHCR and the Tanzania government didn’t care and cut off the rations to the refugee camp. The result was widespread famine with at least seven people that I heard of dying from starvation.

By the end of my year there, more than half of my class of 45 students had left Muyenzi for other refugee camps to the north which had more food. In Muyenzi many of the young men left to find work elsewhere in Tanzania or Uganda. They would then send funds and food home to their families. This illustrates another major difference from Kakuma. In Kakamu Refugee Camp the refugees are essentially in a prison without walls. They cannot leave the camp without permission which is difficult to obtain. The refugees cannot move to another camp or integrate with the general Kenyan population.

All the refugees in Muyenzi were Rwandans. This is not the case in Kakuma where the refugees are from South Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, the Congo, and Burundi, with lesser numbers from other countries. This sometimes leads to violent conflicts between the various nationalities. At one time Transforming Community for Social Change did reconciliation work in Kakuma after a Burundian motorcycle taxi driver hit a South Sudanese boy and the retaliations ended up killing ten people. The Burundians fled the camp since they were greatly outnumbered, but then some of them were imprisoned by the Kenyan police for leaving the camp without permission.


To donate to the Women’s Sewing Project in Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenyans can donate by going to M-pesa Pay Bill, 891300, Account: GG40252


The world community does not raise sufficient funds to properly feed the people in Kakuma so their rations are inadequate for healthy living. This leads people to obtain other income to buy the necessary extra food and other living necessities. The refugees are not allowed to start businesses outside the camp.

To paraphrase US presidential candidate, Elizabeth Warren, “We have a plan.”

Women’s Sewing Project in Kakuma Refugee Camp, under the supervision of Peter Serete of Transforming Community for Social Change, will train 24 women of various nationalities in tailoring. Phase I, supported by the Africa Great Lakes Peace Trust (AGLaPT) in England, has already been completed. The women together with the Sewing Instructor, Julia Msafiri, participated in a three-day Healing and Rebuilding Our Communities workshop to deal with the traumas the women had that forced them to flee their native country plus the additional traumas they have had in the Kakuma Refugee Camp itself. They then will be participants in a three-day Alternatives to Violence workshop to learn how to resolve conflict peacefully.

The sewing apprenticeships will be done by Julia Msafiri. She is a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and trained in fashion design. She has her own dress making shop using the latest fashion designs with kitenge cloth (a thick, shiny fabric, traditionally dyed in bright colors) brought from the Congo and Tanzania. Wow, look at the dress she is wearing!

Kakuma Refugee Camp is divided into six sub-camps. Three women of various nationalities were selected from each of the sub-camps. In addition six women were selected from the newly opened nearly Kalobeyei Refugee Camp that is accommodating the overflow from Kakuma Refugee Camp.  After a month-long training in tailoring, these women will form a sewing cooperative. Each pod of three women who will work together in each sub-camp and will be supplied with a new Singer sewing machine and materials to begin their business.

There will be three one-month tailoring trainings – the  first two with nine women from Kakuma and the third with six women from Kalobeyei. The African Great Lakes Peace Trust has already committed funds for the first of the two trainings in Kakuma. This fundraiser is for the $2500 for the second of the sewing trainings in Kakuma. To see the details and make a contribution click on Kenyans can donate by going to M-pesa Pay Bill, 891300, Account: GG40252.

Thank you for your support.

David Zarembka


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David Zarembka

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