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'Only God And Trump Knows' Our Fate: A Dispatch From World's Largest Refugee Camp

The streets of Dadaab in northern Kenya are crowded with people and cars. You find refugees selling goats and shaving ice.

The biggest refugee camp in the world is basically a mega village. The mostly Somali refugees sell pots and pans and make colorful headscarves on manual sewing machines.

In one store, a group of refugees are having an intense conversation. It is, of course, about President Trump.

With the stroke of a pen, the new U.S. president threw thousands of lives into disarray when he temporarily suspended refugee resettlements and travel from seven majority-Muslim countries.

Here in Dadaab, the U.N. High Commission on Refugees' office estimates that about 26,000 of the roughly 280,000 refugees at the camp have been affected by the new American policy.

"I can't believe that a first-world president would resort to targeting people because of their faith," said Khalif Abdi Nur, 60.

Nur and his family were supposed to be resettled in the United States. They had been waiting for nine years and then were told last month to get ready to go. They got tested for tuberculosis, they got treated for parasites, they sold things — their house and their shop — to buy rolling suitcases, which are something, they thought, every American should have.

The Nurs also let themselves start dreaming about Texas, which would be their new home.

"I felt like I could wear a cowboy hat," Nur said.

And even though Texas is known for heat, he imagined a cold place with snow, far away from the arid landscape of Dadaab.

His daughter pulls out one of the rolling suitcases. It's black with a broken handle and stuffed with clothes — even a sweater.

All those dreams, Nur said, "only to be left in the dust and sun."

His wife, Hallima Bulle, is sitting just across the room and cuts in.

"I dreamed of an America where we could be normal people," she said. "A place where we wouldn't have to be hand fed by an aid group like children. A place where we could have the chance to make our own fate."


At Dadaab, it feels as though the U.S. refugee ban has stopped all normal life.

The offices here for the International Organization for Migration, usually a bustling spot with refugees working through the bureaucracy of getting resettled, are empty.

And everyone I spoke to seemed to be at a loss.

That seemed true even for Jean Bosco Rushatsi, head of operations at the UNHCR's office here.

He said the U.N. is trying to make arrangements to fly about 200 refugees from Nairobi back to Dadaab. When they left last week, they thought it was for their new homes. Many of them sold everything they owned, and now they're about to come back to nothing. They're about to start all over again.

Rushatsi said the U.N. will find each of them a piece of land and some building materials — twigs, sticks and sheets of plastic — to build a home.

An overview of the part of the eastern sector of the sprawling Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya in April 2015.
Tony Karumba / AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
An overview of the part of the eastern sector of the sprawling Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya in April 2015.

"It's really devastating for some but, you know, they have to face it," he said. "That's unfortunate but there is no alternative solution right away."

Gabriella Waaijman, the Norwegian Refugee Council's regional director for East Africa, said this is a part of the global trend to "demonize" refugees.

It's a tragedy, but it's more than that, she said. It's a story about one of the richest countries in the world rejecting what she said are its obligations under international law.

"So what are you doing? You're putting additional pressure on developing countries that are already bearing the biggest burden of the refugee crisis," Waaijman said. "Its a very, very selfish position that the United States is taking."

Rushatsi said he's also worried that there's more to come. The Trump administration has been talking about cutting U.S. contributions to the U.N. and other multinational organizations.

Because of the funding woes, the U.N. has already had to halve the food ration it gives to refugees at Dadaab.

If more U.S. funding goes away, he's not sure what will happen to the camp.


Away from the bustle of the market, I meet Carlos Tresfeya. He's Ethiopian and his wife, Zemzem Siraji, is Somali.

They've also spent nine years waiting to be resettled in the United States. They were done with their fingerprints and their interviews, and were just waiting for a flight out. Now they don't know what their fate will be.

"Only God and Trump knows," Tresfeya said. "Our hope is just in their hand. ... First to God, second to Trump."

I ask him if any of this makes him angry.

"What will I bring if I am just angry?" he answered. "I don't have any power I'm voiceless."

Tresfeya gets up and walks across the camp, where each house is surrounded by fences made of braided twigs. They look like something a bird would make. Before getting to his house, he passes an evangelical church and an Orthodox one where he worships.

He sits on his bed, and slowly all five of his kids come to sit there with him.

Tresfeya and his wife, Siraji, are soft-spoken people. They fell in love at the camp and decided to live together despite their religious differences. Sariji was disowned by her family, and they're still considered outsiders at the camp.

Tresfeya said his kids keep him going.

"For example this guy," he said, pointing at Fouez, his 16-year-old son. "I'm expecting a lot from him. He's going to do something. He repairs the radio. He sets satellite dishes, repairs mobile [phones.]"

But Tresfeya knows that here in Dadaab, Fouez won't find success.

All five of his children, he said, can't go to school at the camp because they're picked on. They have a Christian dad and a Muslim mom, so they're ostracized.

Siraji said that all her family wants is to move to a place that will accept them.

But now their only hope, they say, is for President Trump to change his mind.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.
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