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Lutheran World Relief and partner Lutheran World Federation are working to protect families like Ahmed’s from being taken advantage of in the Dadaab refugee camps.

East Africa Special Report: A Place To Call Home

by Jonathan Ernst/LWR

Ahmed has a wife and four children, and that is all.

He can't even lay claim to the land where his donated tent sits, although he bought and paid for it.

His family fled the hunger in Somalia, where the herd of cattle he never bothered to count — was it 30 head? more? — were all gone and there was nothing to feed his family. To make the trip, he sold his farm to family members and used the money to hire transport at the border to get them here to the Dadaab refugee camps in eastern Kenya.

Lutheran World Relief partner Lutheran World Federation (LWF) manages the camps, leading a large operation in conjunction with the UN High Commission for Refugees and dozens of other relief organizations. LWR has worked with LWF in Dadaab since 2008 through a grant from the U.S. Bureau for Population, Refugees and Migrants.

Ahmed and his family had set out from their home near Baidoa, one of the regions hardest-hit by the famine, but were stuck at the border for quite some time before finally deciding to sell their holdings and buy passage for a journey so perilous on foot that many Somalis have died in the attempt.

They have now lived in the hardscrabble outskirts of Dadaab for more than a month. Their tent sits on a patch of sandy orange dirt, with no water or latrines nearby. The only things which appear to be in good supply are small children and cartoonishly thorny bushes.

And to add to the indignities he suffers, he was so desperate for a place to call home that was tricked by locals who told him he had to purchase the tiny plot or he would not be allowed to stay. He scraped together the 4,000 Kenyan shillings — about $43 US dollars, but it might as well have been a million — and gave it to a stranger, a Kenyan named Kabir who he hasn't seen since.

The land actually belongs to the Kenyan government, and is free for the refugees to use in the midst of this massive humanitarian crisis.

LWF social worker Faith Kagwirin, who leads a network of caseworkers in one of Dadaab’s three camps, estimates that as many as 16,000 families of new arrivals have fallen prey to such land scams. She and her team have tried to educate new arrivals about such perils. They even wear shirts that serve as billboards with slogans warning against the practice. This work — of ensuring refugees like Ahmed can access the services they need and avoid being taken advantage of  — has been an integral part of LWR’s partnership with LWF.

“What we have to do is inform them that the land is for free,” she says. “They were not to buy that land because it does not belong to the local community, but they get to the camps and they are full so they buy land in the outskirts.”

The present crush of famine-stricken new arrivals is swelling the camps here at Dadaab, which were already well past their capacity. The camps were only built to help sustain around 90,000 people, but the U.N. estimates that by the end of 2011 the population will exceed 500,000.

As new arrivals like Ahmed crowd into the outskirts of the established camps, they are at risk of any number of problems including lack of good water and sanitation. But after they’ve created dwellings -- and paid for land they mistakenly believe is theirs -- it can be hard for aid workers to convince them to relocate to proper camp sites.

Ahmed, who says his biggest hope in his new life in Dadaab is just to learn to read and write, is reluctant to move again after already going through so much. .

Meanwhile, LWF continues to reach out to as many refugees as possible to prevent what happened to Ahmed from happening to others.

Adding more layers to the complicated effort to help people who are often twice-traumatized by fighting factions and deep hunger, Ahmed now feels he is a refugee with no home to return to.

“I am not thinking about going back to Somalia,” he says. “There's no food to sustain us.”

Help pave the path to recovery for East African farmers like Ahmed by joining Lutheran World Relief in raising $3 million this year for a long-term response. Your support will provide tools, seeds, training and critical improvements to things like irrigation systems that will help farmers recover their livelihoods and become more resilient to future droughts.

Please give a gift to LWR’s East Africa fund.

Jonathan Ernst is a freelance photographer and reporter who recently visited the Dadaab refugee complex in Kenya on behalf of Lutheran World Relief. 
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