Kenya: Like a bird freed from its cage
16 September 2012

The JRS Urban Emergency Programme in Nairobi, Kenya provides food relief to refugees and asylum seekers in the form of beans, rice and other staple foods. Katie Allan/JRS
To be a refugee is to be a nobody - trying to smile when you want to cry. It means holding onto physical life in the midst of psychological death. It means watching yourself struggle inside that cage called refugee.
Kenya, 11 September 2012 - My name is Jamal* and I am a former refugee from Saudi Arabia. I now live in Louiseville, Kentucky in the USA, and my life has turned around dramatically. JRS helped me greatly along the way and so I wanted to tell my story.

I was born in Saudi Arabia to Somali parents. My parents had migrated to Saudi Arabia many years before due to the harsh inter-clan rivalry that existed in their country. Their hope was to find peace and refuge from the discrimination and prejudice which afflicted them in Somalia due to their ethnic group.

However in Saudi Arabia, life was not much better. As Somali immigrants, our family was seen to be at the bottom of society and we experienced discrimination regularly. As a child I was not able to play with the other children and was seen as an outsider.

Often I would just sit alone and cry, wondering how I could fit in. Once I was older I was lucky enough to enrol as a student at a college, however I was still marginalised in the society there.

In 1999, due to a conflict over demanding his rights, my father was sent to prison and eventually disappeared. A few years later, my mother and I were deported back to Somalia and at that point the collapse of our lives really started.

We arrived in Mogadishu in 2002, a time when the country was at the height of long-term civil war and clan rivalries were extreme. The few months we spent there were horrendous - living in fear of militias roaming the streets at night. My mother and I narrowly escaped kidnap and robbery at gunpoint a number of times, so we decided to leave for Kenya.

The dangerous journey to Kenya

Our long and dangerous journey to Kenya was beset with many challenges. We were robbed regularly at checkpoints and we often saw people being killed at those checkpoints. I remember witnessing two men being killed after an argument - after that I couldn't talk or eat for days due to the trauma.

By the time we reached the border with Kenya, Mandera town, we had no money left and so we spent a few days there begging for food and money in order that we could proceed. Finally, we managed to secure our money for transport and we arrived in Nairobi in early 2003. At this point I was 20 years old and ready to start over and begin a new life.

Officially an urban refugee

On reaching Nairobi, my mother and I were registered with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and we officially became refugees. We were lucky enough to have a room to live in, but our days were filled with worrying about the future and fearing for what might happen. We tried to start a small business selling perfumes, but it was not enough to cover all our basic needs.

An option could have been for us to go and live in one of the Kenyan refugee camps (Dadaab or Kakuma) but we feared for our security there. We worried about meeting the very people who had antagonised us in Somalia. We chose to stay as urban refugees and tried our best to survive.

JRS came into our lives after a few months of living in Nairobi. We visited a local parish where JRS were providing basic food aid to refugees. We were accepted on their programme and at last we could cook decent meals. Without JRS I don't know where we would have ended up.

A new chapter in my life

Being a refugee is not a happy existence. Even when I was doing my best to appear normal, I knew it was not real. I still remember the pain of learning that some of my refugee friends in Nairobi were killed by thugs.

To be a refugee is to be a nobody - trying to smile when you want to cry. It means holding onto physical life in the midst of psychological death. It means watching yourself struggle inside that cage called 'refugee'.

After seven years my mother and I got the chance to leave our refugee life and we jumped at the chance. The UNHCR referred our cases for resettlement and in 2011 I boarded a plane to Louiseville, USA. I was like a bird feed from its cage, after so many years of suffering. On arrival at my new destination I felt such great joy and cried emotional tears.

My life has now entered a new chapter. I live here without restrictions, fear or worry. I am now a person who has a future, who has a destiny. Two months after my arrival in the US I secured a job, and now I own a car. I can pay my rent and can afford to attend school.

My mother and I have been welcomed by a local church community that has embraced us in their lives. I enjoy all the simple things of life, like visiting the library and walking round local parks. Step by step this is becoming my new home, my new country, and I'm loving it.

My advice to each and every refugee is to never despair. Although you go through heartbreaking and devastating experiences, continue dreaming and hoping as a better tomorrow is yet to come.

Stay with UNHCR and the other refugee organisations such as JRS, and use their wonderful services. Most of all, stay with God and pray, each refugee needs to pray for his or her country and for peace.

* Not real name

JRS has been assisting urban refugees in Nairobi since 1991. The Urban Emergency Programme responds to the urgent unmet needs of newly arrived asylum seekers and most vulnerable refugees through parishes of the Archdiocese of Nairobi, situated in lower income and slum areas. It helps refugees survive in a situation new to them through provision of food and non-food items, financial and medical assistance, pastoral and psychosocial support.