Growing up in the world’s largest refugee camp

A Somali refugee who has spent nearly his whole life in Kenya’s Dadaab camp tells Al Jazeera what it is like.

Thousands of Somalis fled to Dadaab camp in Kenya after the civil war that broke out in Somalia in 1991 [Reuters]

One day in 1991, gunmen from the Hawiye clan attacked my father’s shop in Qoryooley, a city in southern Somalia. When my father, who belonged to one of the main clans fighting the Hawiye escaped, he told us we had to flee. My parents later told me that gunmen from a coalition of clans had killed many people and looted the town on several occasions. I was just three at that time.  

But we got into a car, and after driving for about five days, arrived at the city of Ogorchi Libo in northeastern Kenya. There, United Nations officials registered us and brought us to the Dadaab refugee camp, the world’s largest refugee complex where I now live. I didn’t know it at that time, but my parents were fleeing the conflict between warring clans, along with thousands of other Somalis, after the collapse of President Mohamed Siad Barre’s regime.

Life at Dadaab

As a child, life in the Dadaab refugee camp was full of hardship and difficulties. We were family of five: my parents, myself and two siblings, who were later born at the camp. Lack of clean water was common, and our only shelter was a plastic sheet. That sheet protected us from the hot sun during the day and the cold at night. In the early days, the camp was not overcrowded but food shortages were common because the handouts given by the World Food Programme in the camp were never enough.

Witness – Sisters of Somalia

Both my parents had no jobs at that time. Two years after we arrived in Dadaab, my mother, who was a nurse, delivered two of my siblings in the camp. She stared working as a midwife at a hospital in the camp operated by the aid group, Doctors Without Borders. Life improved somewhat, though my mother’s wages were never enough. It was better than nothing. In 1994, my father became sick and died of diabetes-related illnesses, when I was only six years old.  

During that year, I started primary education. When I first enrolled in school, I already knew some letters of the alphabet such as U-N-H-C-R, because I could always see them on the plastic sheets and other items the UN refugee agency provided to us. Those are the first five letters all refugee children here in Dadaab learn.

After my first five years at the Dadaab camp, Somalia descended into further anarchy. It became apparent that we would be there, at least for the mid-term. Those years stretched on, and eventually, I graduated from high school. I later became an interpreter for the aid agencies working in Dadaab covering the drought in south and central Somalia  – which the UN termed as the worst in more than 60 years.

The crisis triggered an international humanitarian response and Somalis marched in their thousands in search of help and protection. It was at this time that I started working as a fixer and stringer for various international media. Then, when it was announced that Kenyatta University would open a branch of its campus at Dadaab, I joined. My happiest moment was in April this year, when I graduated with a diploma in public relations and journalism – from the first university in the world situated within a refugee camp.

However, Dadaab wasn’t a safe place to grow up in. In October 2011, gunmen kidnapped two female Spanish aid workers and shot their driver in Dadaab. There had been other such attacks on foreigners close to the Somali border. As a result, humanitarian activities at Dadaab were tamped down as the security situation worsened. The Kenyan government then called for closure of the camps, with rights groups such as Human Rights Watch condemning the move.

Since the al-Shabaab attack on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall in September 2013, calls for Somali refugees to return home have become louder

No hope of return

I am now 27, but cannot not go back to Somalia. There is no strong government in place in my country to protect me.  In addition, being a journalist puts me at risk, as Somalia is among the world’s most dangerous place for reporters. There are a lot of youth like me who have spent their whole lives in the camps. Some say they feel like they are living in an “open prison”. But there is no possibility of movement beyond the camps now. And there is no chance of getting a job or integrating into “the real Kenya”, as the Kenyan government doesn’t want Somali refugees to integrate. The Kenyan government offers no freedom of movement as described in the UNHCR’s 1951 Refugee Convention.

The Somali conflict has been one of the bloodiest and the longest wars in recent history. Since 1991, up to a million Somalis have died, according to  Many say that some kind of external intervention is required to set the country on a new course to peace and development. Somalia surely represents the clearest example of a nation which has been all but abandoned by the world community. Its civilians continue to endure suffering that is unimaginable to most people in the world.

To me, the one thing I would love most is to see a peaceful Somalia. But I still hold out hope that I will be repatriated to a third country one day and fulfill my dream of becoming a journalist abroad.

Abdullahi Mire is a Somali fixer and journalist who lives in Kenya’s Dadaab camp.

Follow him on Twitter: @miire06