East African Refugees: A not-so- “American” Dream

A white picket fence, providing for one’s family and the ability to live with a sense of ease, accomplishment and security is the ever-coveted American Dream. This lifestyle is something that Americans not only work toward, but often feel entitled to. No one should ever have to “struggle.”

Ah, the American Dream.

It turns out that these hopes are not limited to the average American. This may seem obvious, but often we forget about our leg-up of opportunity which makes this future seem obtainable to us. Those less fortunate than us often have the same hopes but in much more basic terms.

Ahmed and family in Dadaab

During Jonathan Ernst’s (LWR guest writer and photographer) recent visit to Dadaab, Kenya, he spent all of his time in the camps getting to know the refugees. In almost every interaction, he found the same simple hopes for the future surfaced.

While a small plot of land to grow food is a more basic need than a white picket fence, security, accomplishment, ease and the ability to adequately provide for a family are not qualities easily found in the lives of the average East African refugees. Many have experienced violence and political unrest; they have been plagued by hunger and toil tirelessly to just get by.

Even baser than these hopes, is the desire for a home. Home is a concept that many of us have taken for granted.  Even if we don’t envision a physical house, there’s usually a place in our minds that we return to when thinking of home. Maybe it’s the neighborhood where you grew up, a warm bed, the old kickball field down the street, or the dinner table with your wife and kids.  The well-known, “home is where the heart is,” expression does not quite cut it for the refugees in Dadaab. Generally the memories of their homelands are appealing — but in reality it is impossible to return. Hundreds of thousands of people have come to the camps not knowing what to expect, but just looking for a place to safely live. Some have spent 20 years in the camps; others were born there and have known no other life. And still others come to the camps eager to make a new life for themselves after escaping drought, famine and political violence.

Most are unsure how to reconcile their ideas of home. While the overcrowded camps are not ideal, registered refugees are still able to receive food rations, basic necessities, and sometimes even education through LWR, LWF and other non-profit organizations. Afrad Mohammed, a refugee with a family of three, states happily, “We are ready for anything, because we are refugees who are looking for a place to settle.” He said, “But I am happy to have this plot.”

Fatumah Muhammed Abdi — a refugee who collected five children on her journey to Dadaab — represents the other majority, “Before the militants came to the country we were very stable and very comfortable with life. Now there is a drought which has washed away the environment, that’s why we’re here.” She explains further, “During our farming, with rain, everything grew — we would have never come to Kenya.” She, like many others, misses home and would return immediately given the right circumstances.

LWR’s extended presence in East Africa is extremely important for ensuring inhabitants return to their homes. As an organization committed to second wave relief through sustainability projects, Lutheran World Relief is working diligently on many long term projects like water filtration, education, and agricultural stability, geared towards agricultural longevity in East Africa.

By providing sustenance and cultivating sustainability, LWR helps to promote and create a not-so-American dream — peace, dignity, and self-sufficiency.