I was born and raised in a refugee camp: the world isn’t as globalized as you think

Children play outside the shell of a makeshift home, or "tukul", in the outskirts of Dagahaley settlement at Kenya's Dadaab Refugee Camp, situated northeast of the capital Nairobi, near the Somali border, August 31, 2011.

Image: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Brownkey Abdullahi
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The world is flat, people say. By that they mean that thanks to the forces of globalization, artificial constructs like borders will soon be a thing of the past, as people everywhere become part of one connected chain.

One day you could be in your office in London. The next – after nothing more than a couple of clicks of a button, and without even requiring a visa – you’re at a business meeting in California.

But as someone who was born and raised in the world’s oldest and largest refugee camp, I’m here to tell you this: the world is not as globalized as you think.

Living in an open prison

In 1991, when conflict erupted in my parents’ homeland of Somalia, they faced a tough choice. Their first option was to stay there with my siblings and risk losing everything. Many Somalians chose to do that, and within a year, 350,000 of them had died. Their second choice was to flee.

After passing through other refugee camps, they ended up in Dadaab. Opened in 1992 and originally intended to provide temporary sanctuary for 90,000 people, it is the world’s largest and oldest refugee camp. Today, almost half a million people call it home, putting it in league with cities like Zurich or New Orleans.

Like many people living in Dadaab, I was born here, and it is the only place I have ever known. My movement is strictly limited: other than a recent trip to Nairobi as part of a UNHCR youth refugee conference, I have never left the camp. I have never left Kenya, the country where I was born, raised and educated, but where I have no right to citizenship or even employment.

We are trapped in an open prison, nothing like the globalized world I hear people speak of.

A hint of globalization

Thanks to radio stations and spotty internet access, we can still connect with the world we are not able to experience first-hand. BBC World Service and Voice of America ensure we stay in the loop with global developments, and thanks to social media I can now meet (if only virtually) people from other countries – even if I do have to access these sites through a temperamental internet connection on my mobile phone.

These are but small tastes of the benefits of globalization that many people take for granted, but they have made an enormous difference. For several years now I have been campaigning in my camp against gender-based violence and female genital mutilation. What little internet access we have has allowed me to share that message with a larger international audience through my blog.

But if we had the same opportunities as those who have benefited most from globalization – the chance to move to other countries to study or work, or access to a computer with a reliable internet connection – those of us living in Dadaab would have achieved so much more than we have been able to.

Making globalization work for all

Many of the debates surrounding globalization focus on whether it has been a force for progress or not, whether it brings more positive elements than negative ones. Few people stop to ask themselves an even more important question: whether the world really is as globalized as some suggest.

If you live in Eritrea, one of the least connected countries on the planet, are you really part of the process of globalization? What of the 1.2 billion people who in 2013 did not have access to electricity, the foundation of almost all the innovations that are driving globalization today? And what about 500,000 of my neighbours here in Dadaab, who have lived in limbo for decades, unable to contribute in any meaningful way to global developments?

The process of globalization is a complex one, there is no questioning that. But as I watch those who have felt at least some of its benefits turn their backs on globalization, I can only hope that I will one day have the same opportunities it has offered them.

This article is part of our globalization series. You can read more here.

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