10 stars with strong links to Kenyan refugee camps

Sunday December 2 2018

Minnesota Democratic Congressional candidate Ilhan Omar speaks at an election night results party on November 6, 2018, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. PHOTO| FILE| NATION MEDIA GROUP

Minnesota Democratic Congressional candidate Ilhan Omar speaks at an election night results party on November 6, 2018, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. PHOTO| FILE| NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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Not many people are looking forward to January as much as Ilhan Omar is.

On January 3, 2019, as the post-festive season blues plague the rest of the world, Ms Omar will be sworn in as the person to represent Minnesota’s 5th congressional district in the US Congress. She won the seat earlier this month during the US mid-term elections.

Kenya is a big part of Ms Omar’s story. Now aged 36, the Dadaab Refugee Complex was her home between 1991 and 1995 as her parents sought a safe haven in the face of clashes that broke out in her native country, Somalia.

She is among many former refugees who sojourned in Kenya before they were resettled elsewhere on the globe and became prosperous. Here are 10 famous people who were once in Kenyan refugee camps.


1. Ilhan Omar, Congress woman-elect, US

After capturing the Minnesota Congress seat through the Democratic Party a few weeks ago, Ms Omar said her win was a message against politics of fear and rejection.

A mother of three, Ms Omar made history in 2016 when she became the first Somali-American to win a spot in the House of Representatives in America’s north-central state of Minnesota.

On the night of her 2016 win, she said: “My success is not only for me but for every Somali, Muslim and minority group, particularly the young girls in the Dadaab refugee camp where I lived before coming to the US.”

She was born in Mogadishu in 1981 and came to Kenya with her family in 1991 when civil war broke out. In 1995, she moved to US, where the spark that has kept her star shining was ignited.

While running to be congresswoman, she said she was eyeing the seat to make sure fewer people have to struggle with the daily necessities of life.


 2. Halima Aden: Supermodel, US

The world knows supermodel Halima Aden as the first person to wear a hijab and burkini (swimming costume for women that is not as revealing as a bikini) in a beauty contest.

Halima Aden made her mark at London’s First Modest Fashion Festival. PHOTO| HUFFINGTON POST

Halima Aden made her mark at London’s First Modest Fashion Festival. PHOTO| HUFFINGTON POST

That was in 2016 during the Miss Minnesota USA beauty pageant.

Since then, Ms Aden has become a household name in the modelling world and is now an ambassador for the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef).

In July, she was at the Kakuma refugee camp, where she was born in 1997 and stayed up to 2004 when she moved to the US.

Her mission during the July visit was to shoot a TEDx Talk episode. Speaking with Nation at the camp, she said her visit brought up many recollections.

“(They are) memories of what it was like to just have a tonne of freedom back then. Seeing it now, maybe that was not a good idea. I remember just going off with my friends and being gone for hours, all day, and running back home in time for dinner,” she said.

Upon moving from Kenya, her first stop was St Louis in the US state of Missouri, where she recalls struggling to understand English when in school.

She then moved to St Cloud where, as she told Star Tribune earlier this month, teachers took time to ensure she caught up.

The publication also asked her how it felt like to film a TED event at Kakuma.

“It was mind-boggling. It gives me so much hope because if we were able to bring TED into a refugee camp, and livestream it to the entire world, if we can do this, maybe one day there will be Wi-Fi in the camps. Maybe one day there will be a smart board within the classrooms,” she replied.


3. Thomas Deng and Awer Mabil: Footballers, Australia

 Thomas, 21 and Awer, 23, are professional footballers who were in October selected to represent Australia in an international friendly against Kuwait.

Awer is currently signed with Midtjyllaand, the reigning champions of the Danish Superliga while Thomas plays with Australian club Melbourne Victory.

 Australia’s Awer Mabil controls the ball during an international friendly match. PHOTO| AFP

Australia’s Awer Mabil controls the ball during an international friendly match. PHOTO| AFP

During their appearance for Australia, whose national soccer team is called the Socceroos, Awer scored the fourth goal in Australia’s 4-0 rout of Kuwait. What’s more; Thomas even played a part in passing the ball to Awer to score.

The two boys were born to different families in Kenya where both their parents lived as refugees before finding their way to Australia. Awer was born in the Kakuma refugee camp while Thomas was born in Nairobi.

They later got resettled in Australia and they knew the southern city of Adelaide through their interest in football. The Socceroos’ win over Kuwait was their first appearance for Australia.


4. Ahmed Hussein: Cabinet minister, Canada

When Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau unveiled his Cabinet in 2017, Ahmed Hussein was one of the fresh faces in it.

He is the Member of Parliament for the Canadian constituency of York South-Weston following his election in 2014.

An immigration lawyer, Mr Hussein was born in Somalia in 1976. He and his parents fled to Kenya amid strife in their hometown. In Kenya, they lived for a while in a Mombasa camp before the family moved to Nairobi. It is from Nairobi that he left for Canada.

“His official landing in Canada is time-stamped in Mr Hussen’s memory: February 27, 1993, Lester B Pearson International Airport. It was two in the afternoon. He was 16,” reported The Globe and Mail in November 2017.

He went to Canada because his parents had put him on the aeroplane with a family friend. He then settled in Toronto where he lived with his brother before he got a footing in the Canadian community.

“One of Mr Hussen’s first acts as an MP [in 2014] was to propose a name-blind hiring process for the public service. Anonymous resumés would aim to prevent managers from making biased choices based on gender and race, even unconsciously,” reported said The Globe and Mail in its report.


5. Mayor Makuei Chagai: Basketball coach, Australia

Mayor Chagai, 33, belongs to a group of individuals who fled war in Sudan, that was famously called the Lost Boys.

He learnt to play basketball at Kakuma, where he arrived aged nine. At the camp, he says, basketball was a way of keeping himself busy. Then he left the camp and made it to Australia about 10 years ago.

“He came to Australia with his cousin’s family and is now busy working and managing a local basketball team in Blacktown,” says an undated article on an immigration website in the Australian state of New South Wales.

While settling down overseas, he joined the Sudanese-Australian community and found himself among Savannah Pride, a basketball team.

At first they played basketball for fun, but soon Chagai realised that most of the young men didn’t have fathers or older guardians. So, he started organising the team into something bigger.

He uses the club to train young men and set them up with sports agents, basketball scouts and sports scholarships in Australia and US. As he did this, the numbers grew to over 200 young men under his care.


6. Gai Nyok: Diplomat, US

He was born in what is today South Sudan some 31 years ago. At the age of five, war broke out and he walked, together with his older brother and a few cousins in the Lost Boys group, to Ethiopia. From Ethiopia, they found their way to Kakuma in 1993.

From Kakuma, he was moved to the US aged 15. He then continued schooling, graduating in 2010. He currently works as a US economic officer in Caracas, Venezuela.

Talking to a publication of his alma mater Virginia Commonwealth University in 2016, he said that a move to the US was fancied by many refugees in Kenya.

“All of East Africa was very unstable during the 1990s. There were refugees from Rwanda, Somalia, Ethiopia,” he said. “It was always our dream that one day we would go back to our home country. But even better, it was hoped that we would one day be resettled in another country — the US, for example.”

In 2001, the US government resettled 4,000 of the Lost Boys of Sudan and that is how he got a chance to live in North America.

“All of us jumped at the opportunity,” he said. “[We had] many, many interviews. And finally, in 2001, we had the final interview and I was brought to Richmond, Virginia,” Mr Nyok told the university publication.


7. Emmanuel Jal: Rapper, Canada

Jal was recruited as a child soldier in Sudan at the tender age of seven, fighting a fight he says he knew nothing about.

That was until British aid worker Emma McCune smuggled him to Kenya.

In Kenya, Ms McCune paid fees to have him in school. In the course of his education, he fell in love with hip hop. Today, he has six albums to his name.

His first single was titled All We Need Is Jesus and it received substantial airplay in Kenyan radio stations.

“From his start in life as a child soldier in the war-torn region of Southern Sudan in the early 1980s, Emmanuel Jal has come through huge personal struggles to become a successful and acclaimed recording artist and peace ambassador now living in Toronto, Canada,” says a post on his website.

He blends music with activism.

“Music is powerful. Music is like love: it’s the only thing that can enter your mind without your permission. It plays a part in uniting people. Everyone wants to dance. It’s universal,” he told World Food Programme in 2007.


8. Joseph Deng: Sprinter, Australia

Deng, 20, currently holds a special place in Australians’ hearts because of an 800-metre race he ran in July.

During the Diamond League competition in Monaco, he broke a 50-year Australian record in the two-lap race.

“The previous Australian mark of 1:44.40 was set by gold medallist Ralph Doubell, at altitude, at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics and equalled by Alex Rowe in Monaco 46 years later,” reported ABC News in July, adding that Deng had registered 1:44.21.

Joseph was born in Kakuma in 1998. His mother was living in the camp to escape war in Sudan.

“The family arrived in Queensland in 2004, with Joseph soon showing huge promise as an athlete,” ABC News added.

In April, Deng was seventh for his country in the 800m finals of the Commonwealth Games held in Gold Coast, Australia. The race was race won by Kenya’s Wycliffe Kinyamal who clocked 1:45.11.


9. Habso Mohamud: Peace crusader and author, US

The 24-year-old currently lives in St Cloud, Minnesota, and is an employee of the Centre for Peace at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco).

A holder of a Master’s degree from St Cloud State University, Ms Mohamud was featured in US publication SC Times on November 23, where she argued the case for refugees and discussed her new book It Only Takes One Yes.

SC Times reports that Ms Mohamud’s parents lived in Somalia before fleeing the country for Kenyan refugee camps during the civil war.

“Mohamud received an education in the camp but said it was very basic and without a set curriculum because the population changed so frequently. Her family came to the United States in 2005 and was placed in Fargo,” adds the publication.


10. Hamdia Ahmed: Immigration activist, US

Ms Hamida Ahmed lived in Dadaab between 1997 and 2005.

Forbes featured her in September, where she revealed that she is studying political science at the University of Southern Maine.

“The 20-year-old has made a name for herself advocating for the rights of refugees and migrants,” said the publication.

She then described life in Dadaab.

“Living in a refugee camp was really stressful and traumatic, but I also have some good memories. We all arrived at the refugee camp to escape from the Somali civil war. We wanted to rebuild our lives. Many of us started over with nothing. I attended school and helped my mom with chores,” she said.



Has Kenya been overlooking the true potential of people it hosts in Dadaab, Kakuma?

The success stories of refugees who resettle in other countries after leaving Kenya have left many wondering whether the country overlooks the potential of the asylum-seekers in its midst.

A man who grew up at Dadaab, who wanted to be identified only with his Twitter handle Kingmohaa, told Lifestyle that Kenya’s systems are discriminatory against refugees because they limit movement.

“Students who want to extend their education have problems getting travel documents so they can reach Nairobi and continue their studies. Also, businesspeople have similar problems as travel documents aren’t issued. Sometimes they take weeks to be processed,” he said.

But according to Prof David Kikaya, the director of the Research Institute for Peace, Policy and International Relations at the United States International University (USIU), the restriction of movement is due to international guidelines.

“As refugees, as part of that protection, they are put in an area where the country can accord them maximum security. Because anything happening to anyone of them, then Kenya is liable,” said Prof Kikaya, a former Kenyan ambassador to the UN.

“It also needs to be understood that even when they are in those camps, they can get permission to go out. And I can say that with confidence as a lecturer because, some of them, when they pass their normal exams and qualify, they get scholarships and grants to various universities,” he added.

Asked whether Kenya will ever have a prominent refugee in an influential position, Prof Kikaya said it is possible.

“If there are individuals that apply and qualify to be Kenyan citizens, there is literally nothing that stops them,” he said.

“There are some who, for one reason or other, may qualify to be citizens. You know, according to the Kenyan Constitution, for you to stand for a political position, first and foremost you must be a Kenyan,” added Prof Kikaya.

Kingmohaa argued that Kenya can witness more politicians in the mould of America’s Ilhan Omar if refugees are allowed to realise their full potential.

“Refugees in Kenya are treated as if they are not humans,” he tweeted recently in reference to a government official’s remarks about Ms Omar’s win.

He told Lifestyle that refugees lack basic rights like the right to move and to be naturalised citizens.

Clan dynamics in the areas that host refugee camps, he said, contribute to the sad plight of Somali asylum seekers.

“Politicians fear one community might get more votes. It’s a very complicated situation,” he said.

Which leads to the question: How do refugees in Kenya find themselves in other countries?

According to Ms Yvonne Ndege, the Kenya spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), such a movement is called resettlement.

“It means an opportunity to be settled in a third country: not your country of origin, not the country where you were displaced; but a third country,” she said.

Ms Ndege noted that UNHCR has been encouraging various states to create more room to resettle refugees. She said the United States, Australia, Canada and European Union member states are among the countries that have been resettling refugees from Kenya.

Besides resettlement, UNHCR provides room for refugees to be integrated in the countries they run to — if it cannot be possible for them to return to their homelands.

There is scanty data on the number of refugees Kenya has integrated, if any, but information on the UNHCR website indicates that relocation to Somalia has been on the rise in the past few years.

“Some 85,650 Somalis have been assisted by UNHCR and partners to voluntarily return to Somalia between December 2014 and September 30, 2018,” it states.