Hopes and Hardships
IsraAID Humanitarian Fellow in Kenya, Ariella Kissin, explores the power of writing and self-reflection. The seventeen participants in my Journaling and Self-Reflection workshop are no strangers to me. They are adult members of the refugee community living in Kakuma and Kalobeyei, and we had grown close through prior trainings, events, and lengthy conversations. The group is comprised of community leaders and Mental Health and Psychosocial Support facilitators who work in IsraAID’s Child Resource Center, and my hope is that they can share this workshop with adolescents who access the center.
After two overwhelming hours of lectures, group work, and presentations, we find ourselves immersed in the final activity on the agenda. I had passed out lists with prompts ranging in theme and asked my seventeen participants to choose one or two to write about.
Write a letter to yourself in ten years. Write about your hopes for the future. What role does religion play in your life? Write about the happiest day in your life. Describe your personal methods of self-care. Write a list of what makes you smile.
Sitting in the same room but lost in our own worlds, we write in silence as the afternoon breeze drifts though the open space, intermittently rustling our notebooks.
The idea for this workshop was conceived a few weeks ago after an emotional conversation I had with a South Sudanese refugee who fled to Kenya many years ago with two younger siblings.
“I don’t want to be a refugee anymore,” she told me quietly. “When I’m alone, it’s not easy. I just want to go home.” Visibly upset, she buried her head in her arms. I could see how exhausted she was. Angry at the world, tired of the frustration of the camp. At first, I didn’t know what to say to her. I felt useless and empty and unqualified to empathize. How could I, after all? In August, I would be boarding my flight home to New York. This is an environment where people work tirelessly towards sustainability and self-reliance — they do not need my pity.
It was a different kind of helplessness — never before had I wished so desperately for people’s ability to change their personal circumstances. She felt powerless. Like she has no control over her life. And I felt powerless because I truly wanted to help but didn’t know how. This harsh reality sunk in slowly. I didn’t know it at the time, but her story was the first of many that would evoke the same emotion.
We sat in silence for a few minutes. Finally, I tentatively reached into my backpack and pulled out my journal. Even though at that point I was only two weeks into my fellowship, I had already filled several pages. Intrigued, the woman listened as I explained that writing has always served as a personal outlet for me, from poetry to song-writing to simply describing my day.
The conversation shifted. We talked about how writing can heal; how it can allow us to process difficult emotions. Especially in a vulnerable environment like Kakuma, every single refugee deserves the reinforcement that their story matters. By expressing ourselves through documenting our lives, we can track our personal progress, our hopes, and our hardships.
When I drafted session plans for the workshop I tried to preserve the natural candor of our spontaneous conversation. My objective was to evoke individual voices and stories. I wanted to strengthen self-confidence and elicit self-reflection.
And so, on that Friday afternoon, when one of the participants stood up and said, “when I write, I am reminded that I am alive. That I’m human,” I smiled to myself because I was instantly taken back to that conversation a few weeks earlier.
I didn’t expect anyone to share their work that day. My intention was for this to be a personal process; our words are not always for the world to see. But as participants completed their writing, they beckoned to me, eagerly seeking my input. I sat individually with everyone, speechless at their responses and their willingness to read aloud. Even participants who wrote about the worst days of their lives, who wrote about bombings and deaths of family members and losing their life-long homes, shared their stories.
An impromptu sharing session was born; once the stories started, they didn’t stop. Inspired by one another, participants stood and read aloud to the group. We listened solemnly to stories of hardship and smiled at stories of hope.
A few minutes ago, we were all lost in our own worlds. As we shared our stories, however, we became connected.
Kakuma Refugee Camp and neighboring Kalobeyei Settlement are home to 190,000 refugees from across the region. IsraAID has worked in the camp since 2013. Ariella is currently attending Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. She is one of two IsraAID Humanitarian Fellows who volunteered in Kenya during summer 2019.
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