We can live with refugees in our midst


Belise was only 12 when her parents sent her to Nairobi because they feared that, like many children in Bubanza, Burundi, she would be raped, kidnapped or murdered by warring ethnic groups.

After completing her studies, Belise taught French in a school about 300km from Nairobi. For the first time since leaving her homeland, she dared to dream about success — she was earning a regular income, and working with a language and students she loved. Then a colleague raped her. When she reported the incident to the police, the school fired her.

Traumatised and pregnant, she moved back to her brother’s place in Nairobi. But rather than finding sympathy from her family and community, she was rejected. Her brother kicked her out, saying she had brought shame on the family.

“In our culture, if you have a child and you are unmarried, people hate you. They don’t know how I got this baby; they think that I misbehaved,” Belise told me.

Her experience of rejection by people she thought she could depend on is not unusual. Shared values, cultural ideals and beliefs bind people together — but also sow division.

Nairobi’s refugees live deeply isolated lives. Relationships, even those within their own ethnic and national groups, are regarded with suspicion and actively avoided. Those who do well have social networks that extend into the host population. But few refugees in Nairobi belong to, or take part in, recreational, business or religious associations.

The city hosts more than 63 000 registered refugees and asylum seekers, and urban refugees make up 12.6% of Kenya’s total refugee population. The rest live in the giant Kakuma and Dadaab camps in northwestern and northeastern Kenya and the numbers are increasing daily, with a reported 30% jump since 2013.

The United Nations Habitat’s New Urban Agenda calls for the protection of the urban displaced. Yet we know little about their social lives. A recent study attempts to fill this gap by exploring the relationship between refugees’ social networks and their economic resilience in Nairobi. The Nairobi research was part of a three-city initiative that included Peshawar in Pakistan and Gaziantep in Turkey.

Belise and I were sitting in a Nairobi office in August last year, while her two-year-old scribbled in a notebook on a coffee table between us. She was explaining why social networks were so frail among refugees in Nairobi. She had participated in our survey a few months earlier, where we had asked questions about the nature of social relationships: Who did you know on arrival in Nairobi? What kind of support do they provide you with? In the past three months, have you attended meetings or participated in activities in any religious, business, neighbourhood or professional groups?

Her responses, like those of other refugees, were surprising. We presumed that people fleeing war and insecurity would find common cause in Nairobi, and rally together to create relationships of trust and reciprocity that enable members to get information, economic opportunities and employment. But refugee networks are mercurial, shifting constantly in a context where people live unpredictable and vulnerable lives.

Just over half of our survey of more than 1 000 people — from Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Burundi, Eritrea and Uganda — had stayed with friends and acquaintances from their country of origin when they arrived in Nairobi. But such generosity does not last long. After a few weeks, newcomers are expected to find their own way; their hosts are either unwilling or unable to help in the longer term.

Although ethnic networks can be supportive, they are often deeply embedded in cultural norms and values — the transgression of which can have dire consequences for individuals. Belise learned this lesson, and so do many others. Cultural sanctions and expectations not only limit a person’s capacity to seek help, they also result in deep isolation, with serious psychosocial consequences.

But it was their recurring feeling of shame that was striking. The shame of not being able to support their family, the shame of people you know seeing you in hardship. A man from the DRC put it this way: “I cannot go to my uncle. It is a shame to go for help all the time to my family. I would rather beg on the streets.”

Deep mistrust between people of the same ethnicity and nationality, particularly among refugees from the DRC, Ethiopia and Somalia, compounded the high levels of social control in refugee networks. Having escaped conflict in their countries, many remain on the run in Nairobi, hiding from opposing ethnic and political factions.

Peter, his wife and their three children arrived in Nairobi from South Kivu in the DRC in 2011. They were escaping militiagroups who had sworn to kill his wife, a Banyamulenge woman considered a foreigner by his tribesmen. For a while they felt safe in Nairobi, until one night: “I was beaten by people speaking my language,” he said. “They told me: ‘We know where you are. We will follow you to your house.’

“You see, my wife is Munya-mulenge and I am a Mubarega. Ethnicity is the reason I have this problem. I have moved house eight times, so that they do not find me. I know these are my people. They knew I had left from Bukavu to Goma; they knew my route [to Nairobi]. They knew where I come from.”

So far, our research had pointed us to weak, even negative, social capital among refugee communities. But were there conditions under which social networks enhance refugee livelihoods? We looked at those refugees who did have social networks and scored high on our economic resilience score, which included variables such as shelter, running water, income, sense of safety, access to transport and ability to withstand economic shocks.

Individuals who belonged to recreational, social and religious associations with a diverse membership that includes host populations are more economically resilient than those in groups narrowly defined by their refugee status.

James, a man from Sudan who plays the guitar at a church attended by Kenyans, is able to get odd jobs from the congregants. Fatuma, a Congolese mother of three, has a growing market for her kitenge business through her contact with a local refugee organisation where she helps with translation. A mosque in the city found accommodation for Rehema and her four children, and paid her rent for three months when she arrived from Somalia.

What can Belise’s and other refugee experiences tell us about how to realise the New Urban Agenda’s goal of building more resilient and inclusive cities with refugees in their midst?

Refugees are displaced, but their displacement does not define them. They are parents, employees, consumers, taxpayers, residents, business owners and employers. Development and humanitarian intervention should invest in projects that build solidarity between host and refugee populations. These could involve supporting common-interests groups where refugees are likely to have a stake such as school, professional, business, recreational or neighbourhood organisations. To promote this would involve working with local nongovernmental organisations, municipal authorities and other local governance structures.

Refugee needs coincide with those of the local population. Improved security, sustainable livelihoods and better infrastructure are all demands most urban Kenyans make. Humanitarian organisations would be more effective if they invest in ways that benefit both refugee and host communities.

This approach is an opportunity to strengthen solidarity and build more inclusive, resilient neighbourhoods. Such an area-based approach would require building partnerships with community-based organisations and local institutions.

For now, Belise shares a room with a woman from Burundi and her three children. Every day she rises to go to a nearby middle-class housing estate to find work. “It is luck if I get it,” she told me. “Sometimes, I wash a big pile of clothes the whole day, and the lady refuses to pay me.”

She trains her eyes on something I cannot see and starts to cry. “Help me with my child,” she whispers. “She needs things that I can’t provide. I thank God for her but it is a burden to me.”

The two-year-old hears her mother’s sobs and takes a tissue from the box on the coffee table. She dries her mother’s eyes. When Belise’s cries subside, the toddler stares at me and slaps my hand several times.

Caroline Wanjiku Kihato is an associate professor at the University of Johannesburg. The research was conducted by the Urban Institute in Washington, DC

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