Dadaab Stories: Giving the World’s Largest Refugee Camp a Voice

Police in Somalia recently stormed the Mogadishu headquarters of the independent Radio station, Shabeelle, forcing it to go off air. The move is the latest in a series of attacks on independent media organisations and journalists in Somalia by both the government and the Islamist group, al-Shabab. Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a media worker. Across the border in Kenya, however, a new initiative encouraging Somali refugees to take up journalism in Dadaab aims to buck this trend.

In 1991 thousands of Somalis flooded into Kenya’s barren North East. The initial influx was prompted by the collapse of the Somali government, and by the prolonged civil war that followed. Two decades later, little has changed. A refugee complex designed for 90,000 inhabitants in 1992 is now bursting at the seams. By May 2013, the official number of registered refugees in Dadaab was 401,913. Including those that have not registered, as well as those that fled to Nairobi’s Somali capital Eastleigh, it would be fair to claim that Kenya now hosts well over half a million refugees. Despite the rhetoric assuring a secure Mogadishu, and a Kenyan government keen to rid Garissa of its inconvenient guests, Dadaab’s refugees are still reluctant to leave. In a recent survey, at least fifty per cent of the refugees questioned said that they could not even consider returning to Somalia as the situation was still very fragile – and that even if it did stabilise, the status quo is always prone to rapid change.

So, although it still remains high on the Kenyan government’s agenda, eventual repatriation remains a largely unrealistic goal if the security situation does not improve. And despite the fact that Kenya is amongst world’s 30 poorest countries, the economic situation in Dadaab is better when compared to other arid and semi-arid regions of Kenya. So there are incentives to stay. With this in mind, the policies of some of the development organisations working in Dabaab to facilitate training workshops for jobs suited to work in Somalia seem counter-productive. Strategies designed to develop livelihood opportunities within the camp seem more apt; and there is one such initiative that stands out in particular.

Earlier this year FilmAid launched Dadaab Stories – an online, multimedia project charting everyday life in the camp. The innovative project aims to create a platform for Dadaab’s many inhabitants to share their stories through video, photography, poetry, music and community journalism. It provides a window for a global audience to engage with the refugees through information and imagery on the Dadaab Stories website (www.dadaabstories.org). Though FilmAid has been filming, teaching and screening in Dadaab since 2006, this is the first time that the work of the refugees has been available to such a wide audience.

An example of the type of stories shared includes a short interview with Mohamed Ali Ahmed, an ex-professional Somali footballer who was forced to flee Somalia because of the civil war. He now tries to balance running his business while looking after his nine children – one of whom is severely disabled. Also showcased are ‘The Dadaab All Stars’, a group of rappers who have made a music video calling for an international day of ‘community action and life-saving activities’. Other features follow aid workers carrying out their daily routines in one of Dadaab’s five camps, summarise the visit of Scarlett Johansson as an Oxfam ambassador and outline the life of an ex Dadaab refugee who has recently resettled in the United States.

Perhaps the most significant offshoot from the Dadaab Stories initiative, though, was the establishment of The Refugee newspaper. Facilitated by FilmAid, the paper was started by a group of refugees who saw the need for a medium of mass communication amongst Dadaab’s 500,000 inhabitants.

‘The community wanted a newspaper that talks about their problems – their grievances – so that they can share them with the outside world’, said Aden Tarah, The Refugee’s chief editor in an interview published on Dadaab Stories.

Though the newspaper employs a team of staff journalist, some of whom have been trained by FilmAid, anyone can contribute. The prospect of working as a journalist, though, seems to be attracting more women than men in Dadaab. The fact that young women in particular are getting involved is refreshing considering that Dadaab has reportedly become an increasingly dangerous place for women to live. According to reports published recently by UNHCR and a number of other aid agencies, gender-based violence and systemic discrimination of women is increasing within the camp. Save the Children’s report ‘Unspeakable Crimes Against Children’ suggests that Dadaab’s adolescent girls are frequent victims of sexual violence. Some parents are reportedly marrying off their daughters to interested men in return for their ‘daily bread’; if the girls refuse they are threatened with death or a return to Somalia.

Journalism, then, seems to provide a welcome release in Dadaab. Somalia, though, has a history of repressing journalism, and it remains one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a media worker.

According to an article in The Africa Report, 22 journalists lost their lives before July this year. The National Union of Somali Journalists (NUSOJ) recently paid tribute to a senior technician of Radio Mogadishu who was murdered in the capital on the 17th of August. Despite the surge of media outlets in Somalia since the end of civil war, many journalists still face harassment and political classification in what is still a very politically fractured media landscape. The safety of those within this landscape often relies on anonymity, but a controversial bill drafted by the government looks set to deprive Somalia’s journalists of this buffer. The proposed law requires journalists to reveal their sources and forbids them from disseminating information deemed as being against Islamic or Somali tradition, or which affects national security. The bill comes a month after information minister Abdullahi Ilmoge Hirsi announced a minimum age of 40 for anyone intending to practice journalism in the country. Both are major setbacks for the Somali press, which is clearly already among one of the most endangered in the world.

Being outspoken, and in a relative position of privilege, are dangerous traits in Dadaab too. Liban Rashid, a refugee youth leader and reporter for The Refugee, said that he was considering stepping down from the former as a result of all the death threats he had received. His vulnerability seemed compounded by the fact that a youth leader before him was killed outside one of Dadaab’s supermarkets.

For him though, and Dadaab’s other reporters, freedom of speech in the refugee camp is a cause worth fighting for. And the forum created by Dadaab Stories is clearly a step in the right direction. It gives the opportunity for young refugees to tell their stories, while at the same time developing skills that may one day be utilised in a unified and less politically volatile Somalia.

Published in The East African newspaper