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Citizens of Nowhere: From Refugee Camp to Canadian Campus [Hardcover]

Debi Goodwin
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"Goodwin's account is one of the best I have ever read of the lonely, one-way journey that refugees of the world must endure to capture a part of the better future we take for granted. . . . It is both humbling and uplifting, and not to be
--Brian Stewart, former senior correspondent with The National

From the Trade Paperback edition.

About the Author

Debi Goodwin is a documentary producer and a former CBC journalist. While at The National Debi produced documentaries from Latin America, Africa, China and Asia. The documentary "The Lucky Ones," which inspired this book, won the RTNDA's Adrienne Clarkson Award for best network program in 2008. Her work has also received a Gemini nomination and a Chris Award from the Columbus Film Festival.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Out of the Sealed, Dark Room

Despite the shoving and the wailing at the bus stop in Hagadera refugee camp in northeast Kenya, the conductor for the Zafanana bus company tried to do his job that day. He herded, sometimes pushed, those with tickets onto the colourfully striped bus. It was almost nine in the morning and the bus was already an hour behind schedule. If the driver didn’t leave soon, he wouldn’t make it to Nairobi before dark. Expected and unexpected stops by Kenyan police to check travel documents could further delay the bus, adding to the urgency to begin the long drive west on the packed sand road.
Outside the bus, parents, friends and siblings blocked the entrance and surrounded those trying to get on board. Through an open window, a young man held onto his father’s hand. Inside, one young woman, not yet twenty, sobbed uncontrollably while another watched the most important woman in her life walk away. Eleven young students were among the passengers leaving on the Zafanana bus that day. They were leaving, perhaps forever, their families and others they loved, and the only world they had ever really known. It was August 16, 2008, a day they would remember for the rest of their lives.
Less than a week before the students zipped up their suitcases and boarded the bus, UNHCR did a head count in the three sprawling camps of Hagadera, Ifo and Dagahaley. Collectively, the camps in Kenya’s remote North Eastern Province are known as the Dadaab refugee camps. UNHCR officials knew that numbers were on the rise in the camps, knew that each month about 4,000 people were sneaking across the closed but poorly guarded Somali border less than one hundred kilometres away from the town of Dadaab, sneaking into Kenya to seek asylum from the violence in their homeland. On August 10, 2008, UNHCR found 206,639 refugees in Dadaab, up 20 per cent from the first day of the year. Dadaab was fast becoming one of the largest refugee camps in the world. Because of its location, the vast majority of both the new arrivals and the older residents in the camps were Somalis. Only about 3 per cent of the population in Dadaab came from places like Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Ethiopia or Eritrea.
When UNHCR drew up the plans for the Dadaab camps in 1991, it foresaw a maximum of 90,000 people taking refuge there. Tractors cleared land previously used as rangeland for livestock, and over the next two years workers laid out plots for three camps encircling Dadaab, a small town near the equator where temperatures can reach 45 degrees Celsius in March. Drills bore through the semi-arid land to reach the precious water supply. That was the year Siad Barre’s dictatorship of Somalia ended in a bloody civil war. Hundreds of thousands of Somalis fled enemy militias and the destruction of their homes, fled on foot with whatever they could carry into Kenya, overwhelming the country’s ability to absorb refugees. Over the next few years the Kenyan government pushed as many refugees as it could find to the farthest, poorest corners of the country, into the camps of Dadaab in the northeast and Kakuma in the northwest, far away from the vibrant capital of Nairobi. The population of the Dadaab camps swelled as high as 400,000, more than four times the projection, before dropping well below 150,000 and then rising again.
Seventeen years after the Dadaab camps first opened, they had taken on a dispiriting feel of permanence, with tin-sheet schools, ill-equipped hospitals and even markets selling clothes and fresh food. care International provided elementary and secondary schooling and other programs designed to make life easier. It also sanctioned the markets, after entrepreneurial refugees wanting to fill idle time and their pockets asked for the space, often using money sent from relatives abroad to start their businesses.With no sign of peace in Somalia and few opportunities for resettlement, there was an unrelenting sameness to the days of those stuck in the camps. For most of the refugees, August 16, 2008, was just another day divided into equal parts darkness and light. Another day of stretching rations with whatever sugar or canned goods or vegetables they could afford to buy from the markets. Another day of lining up at communal taps to fill yellow jerry cans with water from deep inside the earth. Just another day marked not by nine-to-five jobs or by three daily meals, but by five prayers of Islamic submission. It is no wonder that Somalis have a word for the longing to be elsewhere, to earn resettlement to a third country. Buufis, they call it—a longing so strong it can make people lie about their identity, or drive them crazy, they say.
But before the chill of night left the air on that August day, before any hint of light tinged the sky, the family and friends of the eleven students leaving Kenya prepared for a very different day. Behind the kamoor—the high fences woven out of sticks that separate the compounds from each other—Somali families rose earlier than usual. Sisters and mothers lit kerosene lamps and poured the batter of flour, water and salt that had fermented overnight onto flat iron pans over freshly lit fires for thin pancakes known as anjera. They squatted or bent to toss unmeasured but exact amounts of loose black tea and crushed spices into aluminum pots of boiling water for the sweet, milky drink that added flavour and a burst of energy to every morning. In the Somali compounds, ten young people with few memories but these daily routines witnessed them for the last time. It is hard, they say, to make Somali men cry. Many did that day.
And in one compound in a corner of one camp where minority Eritreans and Oromos lived, the eleventh student, a single young man, looked around at his fellow Oromo teachers and began to weep, knowing he was the only one among them who would leave.
With more and more refugees flowing into the camps each day, the eleven students from Dadaab were going against the stream. They had given up their refugee papers, become subtractions from the count. They had all beaten the odds. Now they were off to Canada, a country they knew next to nothing about, to become permanent residents and university students, to be resettled in another country because they could not go back to their own and there was no future for them in Kenya beyond the sameness of life in the camps. What they knew about their third country, Canada, could fit on a single page. It was a cold place, they had heard, but all they knew of cold came from touching ice, and surely air couldn’t feel like that. And snow—what was it exactly? Something white that falls mysteriously from the sky. Looking at a foreigner’s picture of a patio table covered with a dome of January snow ten times thicker than the tabletop, one of the students asked, “Is that inside a house?”
They knew that Canada was a democratic country, and they had heard—and they prayed—that it was a tolerant place where they could practise their faiths with freedom. In school they had studied the politics of Kenya, Great Britain and even the United States. Canada, to no surprise, was nowhere to be found in the curriculum. Some thought there was a queen; others were sure there were elections. A couple of them knew there was a prime minister. None of that really mattered. Canada was not here. Canada would give them papers and let them move freely, study at universities and get jobs that could help their families.
Packed in suitcases ready to go were sweaters never worn, jeans, running shoes whiter than a fresh Canadian snowfall, photographs, hand creams and deodorants that surely couldn’t be purchased in Canada, sticks for cleaning teeth, hijabs and flowing scarves, Qu’rans and prayer mats. Some of the Somalis, those who could find them, had bought prayer mats with plastic compasses glued to them, compasses that would always point them in the right direction for prayer, toward the holy city of Mecca.
Dagahaley Refugee Camp
The Zafanana bus company had a garage in Dagahaley camp, where it began its journey to the capital just after dawn. A commercial company, it carried passengers with Kenyan identity papers and UNHCR travel documents to the city of Garissa, one hundred kilometres southwest of Dadaab, or on to Nairobi, five hundred long kilometres away. Those travelling all the way to the capital could reserve a seat for 1,000 Kenyan shillings, about $15 Canadian. The International Organization for Migration (IOM), overseers of the resettlement of refugees, had given each of the eleven students precisely 1,000 shillings to buy their tickets ahead of time from conductors who lived in each of the camps.
Before sunrise, the bus driver, the main conductor and the mechanic making the journey that day ate in a small lodge in Dagahaley where they had spent the night. Dagahaley is the most remote of the three Dadaab camps, seventeen kilometres north of the town of Dadaab and eleven kilometres from the nearest other camp, Ifo. Almost all of the population of Dagahaley is Somali and more than half had been nomads in their former lives. Walking long distances is something they are used to. Three students would board there: two Somalis, Mohamed Abdi Salat and Abdikadar Mohamud Gure, and a refugee from Ethiopia, an Oromo teacher known to the others as Dereje Guta Dilalesa.
There was barely enough light in the sky to make out the edge of the camp when twenty-three-year-old Mohamed started walking that morning. He lived with his mother, his twenty-one-year-old brother and young half-siblings in a compound in one of the remotest blocks of the remotest camp. At one end of the fenced compound, Mohamed and his brother shared a mud house. The house had two sleeping mats and a hole near ground level for ventilation. There, Mohamed, a fan of the BBC, often listened to a bo...
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