Winnipeg Free Press diversity reporter Carol Sanders visited Dadaab refugee complex in Kenya, run by Winnipegger Ahmed Warsame, and met refugees desperate to reunite with family in Winnipeg.
DADAAB, Kenya — Most people in the world have never even heard of Winnipeg.
For a teacher and an electrician trapped in the world’s largest refugee camp, Manitoba’s capital is the place of their dreams.
They have loved ones in Winnipeg who hope to bring them to Canada to live one day; loved ones who see all the opportunities and unfulfilled potential.
The teacher and electrician live in Dadaab — in the hot, orange-dust desert of northeastern Kenya not far from the border with Somalia. There, more than 357,000 refugees live in the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ five camps. Many have been there since civil war broke out in Somalia more than 20 years ago. Recent drought and famine drove tens of thousands more to the camps — Dagahaley to the north and Ifo, Ifo II, Hagadera and Kambioos in the south.
The Canadian government has stopped taking many of the mostly-Somali refugees and basically imposed moratorium on any new private refugee sponsorships. For family members here and there, the wait is excruciating.
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In the warrens of the Dagahaley refugee camp, a young family struggles to get through the dusty, 40-degree Celsius day surviving on little more than love.
Three-year-old Kalson has cerebral palsy after a difficult birth and the little girl can’t move on her own. She has convulsions and is in constant pain.
"She cries always," says her father, Hassan Mohamed Abdi.
Three-day-old baby Abdi Hafed sleeps peacefully in their hut under a mosquito net. He was born at the Dagahaley hospital with no complications.
Toddler Hamdi, 18 months, looks at a postcard of a cute polar bear cub from Canada while her dad holds Kalson on his lap and shows her the winter Travel Manitoba guide with pictures of full grown polar bears.
Hassan stays up nights so his wife, who’s just given birth to their third child, can sleep.
"I help the mother," says the tall, thin man in English.
"I love her so much — she is so caring and very hardworking. I love her too much."
He smiles wearily.
Hassan is a headmaster at a Dagahaley primary school. The lack of sleep is taking a toll on the teacher’s performance in class, he admits. "When I go to do my duty I can’t perform."
It’s troubling trying to balance his two loves — his wife, Farah, and teaching, he says.
Hassan, now 30, was an exceptional student growing up in the refugee camp won a two-year scholarship to the Mt. Kenya University in Nairobi where he earned a teaching certificate. It’s been his calling since he was a little boy.
"That’s my profession. I used to play at teacher."
His parents, animal herders in Somalia, fled to Dadaab in 1992 because of Somalia’s civil war. They don’t read or write, but always supported him in his goals.
A new baby and a suffering three year old aren’t the only reasons Hassan has trouble sleeping.
"There’s a lot challenges — security problems. We don’t sleep here."
There have been bombings, attacks, rapes and abduction. People are scared, he says, and they feel trapped.
"It’s impossible for us to go back to Somalia. Government officials there are killed every day. Here in Kenya, we can’t get out. We’re not allowed to live (outside the refugee camp) in Kenya."
Their food ration is one big sack of white flour and one bag of maize — food that’s too hard on the systems of their sick and young children. A can of infant formula costs a fortune.
He and Farah, also 30, have mothers in the camp who help them out. But Hassan is pinning his hopes on his uncle in Winnipeg and a change of heart for the Canadian government.
"I requested him to sponsor me but because of the government he’s not able to."
The governing Conservatives placed a tight cap on the number of new refugee sponsorships to deal with a backlog of applications.
If and when Hassan and his family ever get to Winnipeg, they’ll be taken under the wing of an expert in newcomer settlement.
"He will have a nice time," his uncle, Abdikheir Ahmed, says in Winnipeg. He adds with a laugh: "He won’t be like me."
Ahmed, a university-educated Somali, arrived in Canada in 2003 by way of Kenya and claimed refugee status.
"I lived in a rooming house in the West End and made $6.75 an hour at Sals as a baker."
He went back to university and got a second degree in 2007 and volunteered in the after-school program at the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization of Manitoba (IRCOM).
The struggling newcomer almost gave up finding work in his field. The day he registered for a taxi cab licence, he was offered a job running IRCOM’s after-school program.
It was a time when gangs like the African Mafia were actively recruiting vulnerable newcomer kids in the inner city. Ahmed saw after-school programs as a way to counter the gang influence and applied for funding to expand the one at IRCOM. The two-person staff grew to nine and the $50,000 budget increased tenfold to $500,000. Ahmed went to graduate school in Australia for peace and conflict studies and returned to IRCOM to serve a term as its executive director.
He’s currently runs the Citizens Bridge program for the North End Renewal Corp. It helps community members access government identification, driver’s education and licences and credit union accounts.
His next mission is to design a local "immigration partnerships program" for the federal government to help newcomers hit the ground running.
"When you come, you have a lot of hope and optimism," Ahmed says.
But folks like him soon learn that their credentials and experience aren’t recognized and housing isn’t designed for their big families. They discover they have to start at the bottom once again.
"The system is not set up for people who were not born here," he says. "The good thing is there is a lot of resilience."
Ahmed, who is now married with two children, said his nephew Hassan in Dadaab has made the most of his gifts and what was available to him. He excelled in education programs in the refugee camp and earned a rare university scholarship. His university degree isn’t a ticket out of Dadaab, though. He’s stuck there until the Canadian government lifts the cap on new sponsorship applications. Whenever there’s news of a refugee going to Canada, his nephew gets in touch, asking if the moratorium has been lifted.
"He still has a lot of hope. Many are living on this hope."
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Abdirashid Abukar Mohamud, 28, blushes when he looks at a portrait of himself as an adolescent in clothes now a decade out of date. It’s the photo that his uncle in Winnipeg shows people who ask "who is this nephew in Dadaab you’ve sponsored to come to Canada?"
Now he’s an adult, and works as an electrician in Ifo, the oldest refugee camp in Dadaab. A relative owns a shop that does wiring, repairs generators and hooks people up to the juice.
"I learned as I went," says the young man who’s received more than his fair share of shocks.
"I’ve got practical experience," he smiles, speaking Somali through an interpreter.
The high school graduate wishes he had formal training and could learn the trade, start his own business and have a family. It could become a reality if his application for permanent residence in Canada is approved, he says.
"I could improve my electrical experience, earn my papers, work for myself and get married."
Every month, he talks to his uncle in Winnipeg who sponsored him and practises his English with cousins there.
As he talks, he holds a letter from Citizenship and Immigration Canada dated Dec. 23, 2010. It’s the last letter he’s had from the department.
"My biggest hope is resting with my uncle in Winnipeg," says Abdirashid, a single man who lives with relatives in Ifo. He’s dead if he goes back to Somalia, he says, and he can’t leave the refugee camp. "I’ve got a lot of frustrations here," he says while sitting on a tiny canvas stool in the shade of his hut.
"There’s insecurity — I can’t travel out of the camps because of discrimination and I can’t walk freely at night. I’m from a minority clan and sometimes I’m abused."
Not just by other clans, he says, but by police.
When bad things happen, police launch indiscriminate revenge attacks, he says, showing a scar on his arm.
"Kenyan soldiers came and beat everyone in the market. You have to bear with it and get over it."
Plus, there are IEDs around the camp, he says.
He’s lived in Ifo for four years since fleeing Somalia. His father was killed by militia in 2007, his brother is still missing and his mother is alone there.
"The biggest thing that is bugging me is I left my mom in Somalia and I can’t support her with the peanuts I’m earning here, or search for my brother."
Abdirashid doesn’t dream of a lavish lifestyle in Canada but to earn enough to support his mom, find his brother and maybe have a family of his own.
"I haven’t given up. I still have hope."
Where does he see himself in 10 years?
"I think of myself being in Winnipeg, living in a good house with my kids and my wife leading a good life."
His uncle, Abdi Bashir Ismail, got out of Dadaab in 2003. Now he’s trying to help his nephew whom he has hasn’t seen since he was an 11-year-old boy.
Ismail was a government-assisted refugee when he arrived in Canada. He worked in Hamilton, Ont., then moved to Calgary where he worked cutting the heads off of chickens and changing tires on big trucks. He sponsored his wife and kids in the refugee camp to join him. After three years in Calgary, they realized they needed to get their four sons to a "quieter" city away from the gangs that were preying on young newcomers.
"I talked to friends here in Winnipeg who said it’s quiet and there’s no trouble."
The family found the peace they were looking for. Ismail’s oldest is 20 and the youngest is four and they’re all involved in sports.
Ismail got involved in the local community and became president of the Somali Association of Manitoba in 2013. He’s gone back to school to improve his job prospects.
Ismail said he never imagined in the 1990s the trouble in Somalia would get so bad he and his family would have to leave their home in Kismayo.
The young family fled to Kenya and ended up in Dadaab. Life in the crowded refugee camp was safer but not easy.
Today, refugees in Dadaab with family in Canada feel more stuck than ever, Ismail says, because of the moratorium on new sponsorship applications and the backlog of old ones.
When Ismail applied to sponsor his nephew in 2010,Citizenship and Immigration told him to expect to wait 48 months to hear anything.
If the application gets processed and his nephew makes it to the next stage — an interview with a visa officer — it’s virtually meaningless.
Canadian visa officers no longer go to Dadaab because of security concerns. Refugees can’t leave the UN camps to go to the Canadian visa office in Nairobi for fear of being arrested.
"It’s very challenging," Ismail says.
He wishes the Canadian government would set up videoconferencing between Dadaab and the visa office in Nairobi to get the ball rolling for people languishing like his nephew.
The Canadian government discontinued the process without explanation, said UNHCR resettlement officer in Dadaab, Tasha Libanga.
"It was quite disheartening," she says. "I feel bad for the refugees. Their options are so limited."
Citizenship and Immigration Canada said it conducted more than 60 videoconference interviews during a three-month trial period in 2012 but it wasn’t a reliable system because of audio and video technical difficulties.
Dadaab has seen permanent resettlements drop from 10,000 a year — mostly to the U.S. — to just 2,000 last year.
"All these countries pulling out is not helping at all," she says.
The stalwarts — Sweden, the U.K. and Norway — still help urgent cases, such as rape victims and survivors of torture: "They move real quick," she says.
For the other refugees?
"There’s no light at the end of the tunnel."
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