Kenya: Young people holding each other’s hand in adversity
07 June 2013

The new JRS Centre 4 at Kakuma Refugee Camp that will among other things offer a safe haven for boys. (Charles Njanga/JRS)
The first thing that struck me in Kakuma within the first few weeks is the seriousness with which young people here serve God.
Kakuma, 7 June 2013 - I was just one and half month old in my job in the Kakuma Refugee Camp when I met Tony, a young man probably in his early 20s. It was one of the JRS priests who introduced me to him and little did I know that I would soon be boasting of a good refugee friend. Tony had fled their Eastern DRC home due to armed conflict and by the time we met he was just four months old in the camp, single and with no other relative living in the camp.

When our plane touched down at the small airstrip near the camp, I breathed the first air thousands of miles away from home. It was scorching hot, I carried in my hands the sweater I had put on while leaving the cold weather of Nairobi. I was both confused and excited; I felt a little pain in my tummy. Young children and some adults gathered around the airstrip fence to see the small plane and of course to welcome us.  They were quite dusty from the sandstorms, their eye brows and heads looked brown.

The first thing that struck me in Kakuma within the first few weeks is the seriousness with which young people here serve God. Away from my usual duties at the Jesuit Commons - Higher Education at the Margins (JC-HEM) programme, I would sometimes accompany our JRS priest for pastoral services and what I learnt is that the churches in the camp were literally centers for young people. They were in-charge of everything from cleaning to singing and reading sermons in the service. For some reason it looked to me like the 'paradise' I have always read of in books.

Challenges facing young people. So, when I met Tony I first knew him as one of the youths who served in the local church. Through my interaction with him I would later learn of the challenges that young people faced in the camp. Tony himself was looking for opportunities to advance his education and a job as an incentive staff which could keep him busy, give him an opportunity to continue advancing for children's rights which is what he used to do back in DRC and of course earn him some little money to supplement the rations that they are given by the World Food Programme (WFP). I learnt of a young man trapped in a mixture of hope and despair but who kept a very strong outward look.

Taking advantage of the opportunities we offered at JC-HEM, Tony attempted an interview for a community service learning track course together with very many other young people. He put a good fight but the stiff competition for our courses and the limited chances worked against him. When I met him after the interview, I could only encourage him to try another time. Meanwhile, the close relationship that Tony had formed between him, myself and our JRS priest is one thing he was not taking lightly. He would sometimes openly thank me for all the encouragements he received from us.

The family grows. When I later introduced Tony to another youth from Uganda whom I had also come to know in the local church, I didn't know how big a family we would create. They are from different countries but the closeness they have come to share is more than that of brothers. Through his guidance Tony has acquired a new team of friends and a job as an incentive staff with one of the humanitarian agencies in Kakuma.

The teams of young people I continue to meet are a unique lot. The strength with which they face the hard life in the camp, the friendship they share is one that has challenged me at a personal level. It is what has continued to motivate me to wake up every morning to go and serve the refugees.

By Kevin Otieno, JRS Kakuma JC-HEM Project


JRS began work in Kakuma refugee camp in 1994 to respond to the thousands of refugees fleeing the civil war in Sudan. Located in north-western Kenya near the Sudanese border the camp opened in 1992 and currently hosts over 100,000 refugees. JRS provides refugees with the opportunity to build new skills for life outside the camp, through a psychosocial counselling and vocational training programme, as well as support for primary, secondary and higher education. JRS also provides an innovative higher education programme known as Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins (JC: HEM). The programme brings together refugee students in Kakuma with Jesuit universities through a combination of online distance learning and onsite lectures and support.