Lent 2023 newsletter
Dee Dungy, Kenya
I vividly remember the time I flew to Chicago’s O’Hare airport in my Thai sundress and sandals: The airport was my catwalk. Excited to meet my sister and mom, my dress billowed as I swiftly greeted my luggage at the carousel. Whisking past the windows, a quick glance at the icy streets and drizzling rain did not deter me. Mom always met the sundress girl with a coat and boots; and my sister with gloves.
Eagerly waiting to see my family and expecting to be wrapped in in my coat and boots, I was stunned to see the truck filled only with the men in my family. Joyful, welcomed and reunited, I stepped in, yet still searching for my coat and boots.
Now, sitting in the back of a dim meeting room at Kakuma Refugee Camp, I marvel at the colorful head wraps that can double as baby slings and the well-worn kitenge wraps adorning the women. Some of them wear sandals, while others are unshod, bearing thick, callous soles. While sitting in the dust with the unshod, they murmur things I never imagined, and I take unedited notes.
Hearing the women retell their plight on their journeys toward Kakuma deeply unsettles me. They tell harrowing stories about their escapes at night, as they fled tribal or political unrest and the rapidly deteriorating security in their country. I cringe when many say they only had time to grab their children and leave their emotions. Others found out about the impending raid from their sons, who were child soldier recruits; the mamas left food behind for them to eat.
One by one, the women share the awful choices they faced: The choice to stay with their land, their source of food and income; or to flee and risk being caught and exploited by their captors; or the hope of reaching Kakuma camp unscathed and giving their children a chance to survive.
A soft spoken, 34-year-old Somalian woman shares:
I left in 2008, due to insecurity and harassment. I feel much anger and sadness. I left my paternal grandmother there. It takes two months of suffering and hunger — no clothes. I fear as my sister fell into a grave, walking over dead bodies. Also, I fear the environment in Kakuma — dry, no trees or fruits — full of thorns, but I now feel peaceful and more secure, and very good for having an education.
Next a 40-year-old woman from the Congo says:
In 2010 I am so sad, I fear life. I am angry because I was raped. It took me five months to reach camp. I feel relief, but also fear of future, fear of uncertainty. Sometimes I’m peaceful, sometimes frustrated when thinking about the future. I leave father and siblings in Congo.
Some women have been here for years, but as they retell their stories, their pain is still raw and makes it seem like they only came here yesterday. They speak of gruesome exploitation and suffering on their long and unprotected journeys. The desert is their painful catwalk.
A 22-year-old Rwandan woman with disability tells us:
In 2014 I left because of insecurity and violence. I was very afraid, especially of the perpetrators of my father’s killing, who were still around. It took me four months to reach the camp. Also, I fear when two persons threatened me in the reception — some tried to abuse me because of my physical disability. When I returned to my country for three months, my mother, three sisters and three younger brothers had disappeared; and they still have not been found.
Another woman speaks of her journey with her husband and two children and of another person who journeyed with them:
The person who encouraged me on our journey gave me strength. I had time to think about the hard, tough journey and to wonder what was happening. The Exodus story in the Bible reflects on God’s powerful presence with refugees. My faith is in God stopping tribalism. I try to live in peace, to pray with eagerness and to trust that God will relieve your pain.
Whatever our expectations are, our hopes and needs do not always align. Reuniting with family, wrapping ourselves in a warm coat, or sheltering means something different to each of us.
I find that the women’s resilience — and the hope that they are protected and safe — guide them with a laser focus on reaching the camp. They trust in God.
Dear God, thank you that I will never have to journey through life alone. I know that you will see me and will always be with me.
Dee Dungy, Nairobi, Kenya
Almost a quarter million refugees and asylum seekers live in the Kakuma Refugee Camp in northwestern Kenya. Kakuma is the Swahili word for nowhere, and the camp is now one of the world’s largest refugee camps, hosting people from around East Africa. Over the past 30 years, it has become home to those fleeing conflict, climate change, and disaster displacement. At Kakuma, Jesuit Refugee Service supports community-based, women-led spaces as part of their mental health psychosocial support programming. All of the women’s quotes are from a support group meeting I attended at Kakuma.
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Thank you for sharing the stories of these women Dee! Thinking of them on International Women’s Day.
A very informative account of your experiences with the women at the Kakuma Refugee Camp. The detail and quotes from the women themselves are especially moving. May God bless you in your work with JRS.