When I fled my home and sought shelter in Kakuma refugee camp, I was at one of the lowest points in my life. But not the lowest.
It had taken me two weeks to journey from my home country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to Kakuma, in a remote corner of northern Kenya. It was early 2014, and I had no possessions other than a little money and the clothes I wore. I was 21.
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As a survivor of sexual violence, persecution and political conflict, my road seemed to have ended in a refugee camp, without any hope of returning to my homeland. The things I had taken with me from my beautiful country were only pain, rejection, shame and hopelessness.
My only ambition now was for a peaceful and stable life. I paid little attention to the aid workers from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, or the countless other partner organisations working in Kakuma.
But after a while I started to notice them – to ask myself who these people were, what they were doing, and why. And I saw how they were trying to help me and my fellow refugees.
Five years on, and I am writing this on the eve of the Global Refugee Forum, an international gathering in Geneva of political leaders, diplomats, businesspeople, humanitarian aid workers, development agencies and others. This event is to raise support for refugees and their hosts, exchange ideas and good practices, and explore new responses to forced displacement.
Since arriving in Kakuma, I have come to admire humanitarian workers and I want to give something back by speaking up for refugees and making sure the rest of the world does not forget their plight.
So, as we prepare to talk of policies, pathways and pledges, here are the principles that this refugee believes should guide the thoughts and actions of those who attend the forum.
We need our freedom, by which I mean the freedom to forge our own futures. Life as a refugee is tough. Enrolling in school, getting a job, opening a bank account, starting a business, travelling around without the police stopping you: rights and tasks most people take for granted can be difficult, and in some places almost impossible, for refugees.
Taking the decisions that would get your life moving forward seems beyond you. If you cannot go to school, your hands are tied – and millions of school-age refugee children are shut out of the classroom. If access to education, employment, housing, healthcare and other areas is also restricted, you are forever dependent on others.
If we can get our independence back, however, it can be a different story. Then we can go back home if it is safe or make the most of our new lives if it is not. Yes, we need support to survive, but we also need backing for refugee initiatives that will mean we can stand up for ourselves.
In Kakuma, gradually I found my feet. Initially I was not among the lucky few to get the university scholarship I needed. But I took other courses on offer – in English, cinematography, photography and journalism, as well as human rights with the University of Geneva.
Finally, I was able to enrol for a distance-learning diploma in liberal studies from Regis University, a private Jesuit university in Denver, Colorado, with the support of a charity called Jesuit Worldwide Learning. I graduated in 2018 and now I am studying for a bachelor’s degree in business communications with Southern New Hampshire University – which, like JWL, brings higher education to refugees and displaced communities.
Thousands of others in Kakuma and elsewhere do not have these opportunities and have no idea what their future holds. Some refugees sit and wait for their future to be decided … and 30 years later they are still there. Others make plans to do more in their communities and suddenly they are being moved on to another camp, settlement or location. As people in exile, whether the solution is resettlement, returning home or integration into the local community, it needs to be clear and timely. We need to know where we are going.
Most of all, we need the outside world to understand what being a refugee means. This life is not something we chose. It was forced upon us. We need our dignity and we need you to see us for who we are.
As for me, for a long time I was not able to talk about what had happened back in the DRC. Yet I tried hard to overcome my trauma and shame. I am proud that I did so. I have shown it can be done.
To everyone attending the forum, I say: we need more of that help. It might be funding, or technical help, or resettlement places, or ways of including us in our host countries and enabling us to work with and alongside local people. Already there are many examples of cooperation – but with refugee numbers rising, we need more people to give us their support, and we need more governments, companies and communities to share the responsibility of helping refugees.
That is how we will regain our freedom and independence, and repay those who came to our aid.
Joelle Hangi is co-founder of Refugee Artists and Authors, an artistic initiative in Kakuma, and co-curator of I-Am-Kakuma, a website that tells the stories of refugees in the camp.