Somali Refugee Family hides 16 Years in Nairobi Before Living Freely in Buffalo

Mustafa Ali is now the director of a refugee community center in Buffalo, N.Y. / Photo by Liesl Diesel courtesy of Jericho Road Community Health Center

BY YILUN CHENG

The Ali family finally received news after 16 years of staying illegally in Nairobi that their resettlement applications had been approved. Refugees from Somalia, they faced more than seven months of intensive interviews that had paid off at last. They now had a flight to Buffalo, an American city that they had never heard of.

Mustafa Ali, now 28 and the lead case manager of Buffalo’s Hope Refugee Drop-In Center, which serves refugees like himself, was the youngest child of the family. He was only three in 1991 when his father was forced to take the entire family—him, his mother, aunt, seven-year-old sister and four-year-old brother—out of Somalia. It was the same year that armed opposition groups in the country overthrew the government in a bloody civil war. Having heard of the unlivable, grossly overcrowded conditions in the refugee camps in Kenya, Ali’s father made the decision to start their new life instead in Nairobi, the capital.

“I feel lucky that my father took us to Nairobi,” said Mustafa Ali. “You can have all the resources in the camps, but that’s different from living an actual life.”

“It’s like you can play the FIFA video game on your computer or you can play soccer on the field. Living in Nairobi is like actually playing soccer on the field. The feeling of living is there… You don’t need to know anything. All you need to know is to kick the ball.”

Ali’s family was among the 270,000 refugees who fled to Kenya in 1991. According to the United Nations refugee agency, before the civil war, there were only 30,000 Somali refugees inside Kenya. The number soared to nearly 300,000 within one year. In 1992 and 1993, after violent conflicts between clans and a severe drought lead to approximately 250,000 deaths, around 800,000 new refugees escaped to Kenya and Ethiopia.

Right now, out of over 2.2 million displaced Somalis, about 257,000 of them live in Kenya. Only 23,185 of them live independently in Kenyan cities, accounting for 8.9 percent of the total Somali refugee population in the country. Ali was one of them.

The rest live in refugee camps. The biggest ones are the three camps in Dadaab and the one in Kakuma. Sadiya Omar, now 51, escaped her hometown, Baidoa, in 1991 with her husband and their only child. They spent the next ten years in the refugee camp first outside Mombasa and then in Kakuma.

“It was so different,” Omar spoke of the camp outside Mombasa. “Everybody was a victim of war. We didn’t have any hope. The only hope was just to survive the deaths, killings and rapes.”

They could not ask for supplies, she said. Whatever the international community gave the UN was what camp workers they gave them. The locals there did not have enough food either and would come with guns to take food away from her family.

“We didn’t have underwear and cut our own clothes. We reused it and reused it and reused it. You could easily get infection,” she said.

There was an unbelievable amount of rapes, she said. The only hospital was more than eight miles away from where Omar’s family resided. Women had to walk a long distance within the camp if they needed medical treatment. Security was scant and they could easily become victims of sexual assaults.

Families needed firewood to cook. When it ran out, women like Omar were forced to go alone into the forest to gather wood. It was dangerous for women but nobody discussed these risks because the topic of rape was a taboo for the Somali community.

When her family got relocated to the refugee camp in Kakuma in 1997, there was already a large Southern Sudanese refugee population there. Fights broke out constantly. The Somalis were the minority and could not defend themselves, she said.

At the Dadaab refugee complex in north-eastern Kenya, refugee children walk along a roadside path in 2018 / Photo courtesy of UNSOM Somalia

Omar gave birth to two more children inside the camp. “They didn’t have things that the other kids did have,” she said. There were 25 elementary schools and two high schools inside the Kakuma camp but those were far from enough for every school-age child. “[My children] were not in school…kids who were born there, they don’t have any other life. They don’t have any hope. They don’t know what their next life is. They are just there.”

According to a report by Overseas Development Institute, violence between clans inside the camps, lack of adequate education and medical resources, limited livelihood opportunities and harsh climatic conditions are the main reasons why people give up free services in the camps and chose to live an economically self-sufficient life in Nairobi.  

In the early years, the Kenyan government did not enact a law requiring refugees to stay in the camps. However, except for attending resettlement interviews or seeking emergency medical care, refugees had little opportunities to leave the camps.

The refugee agencies can write someone a letter giving he or her permission to go to Nairobi, said Jibril Mohamed, a Somali professor at the Ohio State University and the director of a local refugee service center named SomaliCAN. There is usually a timeline and the person has to come back within 15 or 20 days. Some people do not follow these rules and choose to stay for a longer period. Others do not even go to the camps. They come straight from Somalia and just settle in Nairobi.

Unlike US cities where undocumented citizens have no place in the society, Mohamed explained, in African cities like Nairobi, bureaucratic institutions are much weaker and Somalis from Somalia are essentially indistinguishable from Somali Kenyans. It was difficult to go around the system but not impossible.

“There are more opportunities: retail, technology, telecommunication, all kinds of jobs,” Mohamed said. “But it’s not cheap. You have to pay rent, utilities and extortion money to local police.” Only families who are wealthy and resourceful enough to settle in Nairobi can seek better education for their children and even become business owners.

When the war broke out, it mostly affected people who were poor. Omar never thought about leaving the camp because she could not afford it. Refugees who lived in the cities did have a better life, she said. “You eat what you want. You sleep in a good house with better windows and good roofing. But it depends on what you have in your pocket.”

Ali’s family did not have any money or source of income when then escaped Somalia.

When fighting began, their peaceful life in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, disappeared in a matter of days. They first tried to leave by plane. The airlines were struggling to take as many people from the country as possible, but by the time Ali’s family reached the airport, fighting had already broken out and militiamen had begun shooting down planes.

Upon hearing about a rescue ship coming to the coast, they rushed to the port only to find that a group of pirates—who were once regular fishermen but threw away their fishing net and picked up guns when the war started—had hijacked the ship when it was only a mile away.

The pirates also took control of the port and made everyone line up with their families. “If you want to come to the ship, you have to go through us,” they told the passengers, according to Ali. “Keep your belongings and you will get shot. Leave everything at the port and you can board the ship.” From morning to night, they moved more than 700 people five by five on a tiny boat from the port to the rescue ship, he said.

After a 796 miles journey, the Ali family reached Mombasa, Kenya, with the rest of the passengers, still in a state of shock. They had no money, belongings or identification documents to show the UN officers who were there to register them. They were leaving everything behind to get a chance to live.

For half a year, they stayed in Mombasa inside a designated shelter with around 500 other Somalis as the UN figured out what to do with them. Without proper IDs, they couldn’t move freely. Police officers would visit them from time to time to make sure that nobody slipped through the system.

After six months, when time finally came for the Ali family to move to the refugee camps, Mustafa’s father faced a dilemma. Being stuffed in a camp was not the life he had planned for his children. Having services simply provided to them with no sense of independence and self-determination was, for him, inhumane and degrading. On the other hand, it was illegal for refugees to reside in cities. In Nairobi, they would constantly face the prospect of arrest. They also would not be able to find employment or go to free public schools.

“Now, would you take that risk or would you live in the desperate, dire situation in the refugee camp?” Ali asked. “My father made the decision and said, ‘no, we are going to live in the city.’ ”

The shelter they lived in was not under strict supervision. One day, they simply left without telling the UN officers. The whole way to Nairobi, they begged for money on the street. “It was hard because they didn’t know us. Why would they lend us money?”

After arriving in Nairobi, without a single friend or relative, they had to knock on doors and live under the roof of kind strangers.

“There were no Somalis helping Somalis,” Ali said. “Somalia was under civil war, so even the people coming here, you can’t trust them.” Was this man a former fighter or a civilian fleeing the war? Was he against the government or with the government? Had he killed anyone before? These questions were always on Ali’s mind when he met another Somali refugee.

For 16 years, they moved from apartment to apartment and never had a place they could call their own.

Ali was around five years old when he was enrolled in a local elementary school. A former British colony, Kenya emphasized the English language in its education system. While his mother and aunt never had a chance to learn English and his father only knew some basic expressions, both Mustafa and his sister gained full proficiency.

His older brother was not so lucky and had to learn the language from working odd jobs. “We had no money and had to make a choice: who go to school and who make money? Someone had to sacrifice.”

It was not an easy decision. The cash-strapped family eventually agreed that Ali’s brother and father would be the ones going to work, while the other two children attended school.

Since refugees were not technically allowed to be in the city, they could not seek formal employment and had to work illegally at menial jobs, like cleaning gutters and working as a handyman. “Those small, low-level jobs that people take for granted, that’s what we did,” Ali said. Even so, there were still times when the family could not afford the school fees and when that happened, Mustafa and his sister had to pause their education until they could turn in their tuition in full amount.

Police officers in Nairobi had little sympathy for the refugee population, Ali said. His father, mother and brother had all been arrested at least once. Ali was only seven when the police first arrested him. One day, he was walking on the street with his dad. The police stopped his dad to ask for documentation but they had none. “There is no debate about it: either we bribe the police and get out, or we go to jail…whatever amount they feel like, that’s what they’ll ask for.” That time, the family had to scramble up 10,000 Kenyan shillings, equivalent to $100, to get Ali and his father released from the police station.

“Do you fight against it? Complain? You can’t stand up for yourself because you don’t have proper documentation or channel to make a valid case,” Ali said. “So what do you do? You carry on with life. ”

In Nairobi, refugees live a vibrant city life and have the opportunity to own small businesses / Photo by ND Strupler licensed under CC BY 2.0

It was by battling the daily difficulties of being an urban refugee that Ali grew up and became an independent young man. During those years, he could never afford the luxury of reflecting on his feelings. “You see, under trauma, depression and stress, you really don’t think of [how you feel]. Until everything finishes, then you start to think about them”

In early 2007, after more than 300 appointments with UNHCR, the news finally came that they had the opportunity to resettle in Buffalo. The Ali family was more nervous than excited. They had to rebuild their lives all over again.

“There’s no fighting in Nairobi. But all these years, what we had to go through was almost like going through a war,” he said. They did not have any community to look to. They did not know what Buffalo looked like or what life lie ahead of them. But they were curious about the prospect of living in America. They heard there was peace there.

In April, they flew out of Nairobi straight to New York. When they saw Buffalo for the first time, Ali’s father was instantly alarmed. Nobody was on the street. Nobody was visiting each other. It was total silence. “My father said, it felt like the same silence that happened before the civil war broke out when there was no movement and everybody was hiding in their house. And he thought the area we were settling in was not a good area.”

Getting used to their new city was a slow and gradual process. Buffalo is known for its harsh winters and heavy snowfall. Coming from a country where it was always hot, even getting up in a cold winter morning and shoveling snow in their driveway was a new experience. Their caseworker showed them where to shop for food, where to take the bus, how to get their social security card and how to open a bank account. It took them at least a year to accept that they were no longer living amid a war and that if they worked hard, nobody could take away what they had.

With the help of the resettlement agency, Ali got his first job in the US as a cleaner at a local greenhouse, and his father found a packaging job. Six years ago, Ali’s father was laid off from work. Ali had also been laid off after two years at the greenhouse. They wanted to apply for public assistance but did not know how. Having heard good things about the Hope Refugee Drop-in Center, Mustafa went there for help and never left.  Starting off as a volunteer, he eventually became the center’s director and first responder, serving around 10,000 local refugees from not only Somalia but also Burma, Rwanda, Burundi, Iran, Iraq and many more countries afflicted by wars and conflicts.

Despite the hardships his family had gone through in Nairobi, Mustafa had always felt fortunate to grow up in an urban setting. His experience and work in Buffalo further built up his conviction that some sort of integration into the host country’s society is immensely beneficial to refugees like himself.

He clearly saw the division between urban and camp or rural refugees, not just Somalis but also people from other parts of the world. “My experience of coming here is very different because I knew English and was exposed to education, transportation and the daily struggle of city life,” he said. Clients with similar experience could also easily understand these processes and assimilate into the Buffalo culture. Other refugees had never seen the world outside the camps. So when they came to America, it took a much longer time for them to understand what city life implied and how to get along with people from other cultures, he said.

Steven Sanyu, the president of Burmese Community Service, another refugee advocacy group in Buffalo, echoed Ali’s assertion that those who were born or grew up in refugee camps have an especially hard time assimilating into a new country.

“They don’t have a lot of knowledge…They are not trained to know what’s right and what’s wrong,” Sanyu said. Coming from a conflict-prone environment, it was difficult for these refugees to understand the legal repercussions of domestic violence and physical abuse. If something happened, victims refused to go to the police or the courthouse.

A former camp refugee, Omar felt this frustration personally. “Everything is a challenge coming to the United States: find a shelter, apply for Medicaid, get a job, learn English… we had to adapt to a whole new culture.”

The encampment of thousands of young and potentially productive refugees in the camps for over ten or, in many cases, twenty years is unethical and inhuman. But the Kenyan government seems far from interested in integrating some of these people into their society. In March 2014, the Kenyan government formally outlawed urban refugees, making living in Nairobi a criminal offense.

“There was no prosecution per se,” said Mohamed. The police used the new rule to collect refugees in the neighborhood and exhort more money out of them. There were no codes of laws, regular judicial procedures or due processes. “It was just wrong,” he added.

What can be done? There is no easy solution. Despite their different experience, Omar and Ali both believe that getting rid of people’s prejudice against refugees is the first step toward solving the crisis.  

For Omar, the emotional trauma of being forcibly displaced is even worse than any practical difficulty. “I miss home. I hope this war will end. I miss the life of where I came from, my neighborhood, where my sister was. I can’t tell my kids ‘look, this was the house I grew up in, this was the bedroom I slept in, this was the school I went to.’ I don’t have that. I lost that identity.”

She feels disheartened that people are not interested in learning their backgrounds as complex human beings. “They don’t even know who we are. They don’t know us and they hate us. They don’t even know our history.”

Ali agrees and wishes to send out a message to anyone out there who just assumes the worst in refugees like himself.

“Please check all the facts before making up your mind about refugees and immigrants. Before that, don’t say refugees are coming here to use your resources and waste your money and that we are just bad. Do your own research, meet people, and then you have the right to criticize.”


YILUN CHENG, originally from Tianjin, China, is a master’s student in political science at Columbia University. Right now, her research takes a comparative outlook on democratization trends and ethnic conflicts in developing and newly developed countries. In her reporting work, she focuses on human rights, immigration and other issues pertinent to social justice.

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