Reflections from Kakuma Refugee Camp

1 July, 2019

Ariella Kissin

First Impressions of Kakuma, Kenya, from Summer 2019 IsraAID Fellow Ariella Kissin. Turkana County, Kenya: The pilot announces our descent into Kakuma. As the clouds thin out, I see the faint outline of mountains in the distance and sun-baked land underneath. I scan the landscape from my window; smatterings of greenery compliment dusty acres of soil, and floods from recent rains circulate into rivers, creating canals that look impossible to navigate.

I see it as we near the ground: a flash of silver, gleaming in the merciless sun. The glint becomes brighter and reveals endless tin roofs, stretching out for miles and miles. These are the hundreds of thousands of homes situated in Kakuma Refugee Camp. From the air, I see just how massive the camp is. Nestled near Kenya’s northern border and home to 187,000 refugees, the population is constantly increasing as families flee political instability and violence from neighboring countries, including South Sudan, Burundi, and Rwanda. They settle in either Kakuma Refugee Camp or its neighbor, Kalobeyei Integrated Settlement. For many refugees, life in the camp is the only life they know.

Upon arrival to Kakuma, I quickly learned that the town, home to the local Turkana tribe and a ten-minute drive from the refugee camp, has no speed limit. Everyone moves at their own pace, in chaotic harmony. Cars barrel down the main road, leaving behind clouds of dust; motorcycle taxis race through arid land, sometimes carrying up to three people; children splash in impromptu rivers created by last night’s flood, delighted by the respite from the heat. Truck drivers share the road with goat herders, who guide their obedient herd amid incessant traffic. Camels rest near towering hills, raising their heads with indifference as cars pass by. Turkana women walk along the side of the road, wearing signature beads wrapped around their necks.

When we drive into the camp, I find a similarly busy lifestyle. Vendors sit outside their makeshift shops, bartering and laughing with community members. Women sell fresh oranges, fish, and bread to passerby. Homes, made out of mud-brick and tin, are clustered together by fences. Inside, I see families conducting chores and housework. Colorful fabric hangs from clothing lines, and women proudly tend to their gardens. Schoolchildren clad in uniforms clutch their books as they walk on the side of the road to avoid the floodwater.

Despite the vibrant activity, life in the refugee camp is not easy. The conditions in Turkana County are harsh, regardless of the season. When it rains, the floods can make it virtually impossible to navigate on foot or by car. Alternatively, during the dry season, the sun shows no mercy. Once, during a sunrise hike to a nearby hill overlooking the camp, one of the IsraAID team members pointed out several children who woke up at 5:30 in the morning just to play a game of soccer before the sun rose. The children played in an urgent manner, knowing they didn’t have much time before the soft shades of morning pink were erased from the sky.

There seems to be no middle ground. The heat is quick to dry up the powerful rivers created by the rain, while the rain can flood the entire town within hours.

I saw several homes destroyed by the floods and couldn’t help wondering who had lived there and where they slept during the rain. Ventures into the camp left me feeling helpless as I thought about how many refugees lost family members to war in neighboring countries. I thought about how families travel tiresomely to Kakuma, not knowing what lies ahead but knowing that it is not safe to remain in their home countries. During one conversation with a teenager in the camp, I learned that half his family still lives in South Sudan and that communication is virtually impossible. One woman told me that she “doesn’t want to be seen as a refugee anymore,” because it makes her life increasingly harder. She can’t travel, return to her home country, or even imagine a life anywhere else. All the stories I heard of life in limbo reinforced my feeling of helplessness.

But this didn’t keep me from seeing resilience.

I see resilience in the smiles of the children in IsraAID’s Child Resource Centers. When I visited for the first time, children of all ages were playing together, practicing acrobatics, kicking a soccer ball around, and drawing with crayons. Inside the Resource Center, a facilitator read aloud to a group of fifteen children crowded around him.

Children at the June 20 World Refugee Day celebrations in Kakuma.

The children playing outside ran over to welcome me. “Habari?” I greeted them, shaking their hands. Unfortunately, this was the extent of my Swahili. Yet despite the language barrier, we smiled and laughed together, united by our desire to interact.

I see resilience in the expressions of the IsraAID-trained facilitators, who dedicate so much time and effort to creating safe spaces for the children. The facilitator reading the book ensured that every child saw the pictures on the page. Another facilitator trained a group of boys to perform an acrobatics routine for the Day of the African Child festivities (I later saw the performance, and it left the audience speechless).

I see how dedicated the IsraAID team is. During IsraAID workshops, I see the attendees listening with attentiveness. After a Menstrual Hygiene Management workshop, several refugee women express their gratitude for the training. Some of them tell me that it is their first time learning about reproductive and menstrual health, and that the knowledge they received will be useful to them in the future.

There are challenges here. There is no denying that. Yet there is much strength that exists in the camp as well. Deeply embedded in the resilience of the refugees the hope and desire for a better future remains.

Children receiving traditional face paint on World Refugee Day.

— Ariella Kissin, Summer 2019 IsraAID Fellow in Kenya

Related articles

7 March, 2024


This International Women’s Day, we’re honoring all the different ways that women hold up their communities. Investing in women’s futures, in their skills, knowledge, education, and empowerment, supports everyone’s well-being. Today, we’re sharing inspiring stories of women around the world,...

International Women’s Day: Empowered Women Empower Communities

6 July, 2023


This year in June, we held our annual Leadership Seminar. The seminar brings together representatives from every one of our country offices at our Headquarters in Israel. As a global organization working locally across six continents, these opportunities to gather...

What makes IsraAID unique? Our community-based approach

14 June, 2023


“I don’t miss my home,” says Andre Akinovic, “I came here to protect my life.” Andre is IsraAID Kenya’s Communications Officer but is also a refugee. “IsraAID is very different from other organizations where you won’t find refugees in the...

“Kenya Gives a Chance to Everyone, Especially Refugees”