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Refugees, aid workers share experience in Kakuma

Refugees share stories of resilience and creativity at a rare web-streaming event in Kakuma camp in northwest Kenya. (Aljazeera photo):

By Moses Gum Degur

Kakuma, one of the world’s largest refugee camps in Kenya hosted a rare web-streaming event showcasing stories of resilience and creativity on Saturday.

The TEDx Kakuma Camp brought together current and former refugees, aid workers and others to share experiences in an effort to change perceptions and break stereotypes.

The one-day gathering marked with showcasing activities was the first time that TEDx – the influential conference network that hosts online talks on a range of scientific, cultural and academic topics around the world – held an event at a refugee camp.

Riya Yudaya, a former refugee who participated at the #TEDxKakumaCamp in Kenya said: “Our message is to our leaders of South Sudan, to all South Sudanese and to the rest of the world that we want more women at the table, not just negotiating peace but also making decisions and developing our country. We want peace in South Sudan. We want a country where everyone can thrive.”

Ms. Riya is now the Executive Director of the South Sudanese non-profit Crown the Woman.

Among the speakers at the event was South Sudanese track-and-field athlete Yiech Pur Biel, who represented the first-ever Refugee Olympic  Team at  the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro and Somali American supermodel Halima Aden, who grew up at the Kakuma camp.

After returning to Kakuma for the first time since moving to the United States at the age of six, Aden said she has had many flashbacks.

“A lot of girls, not just Muslims, follow my journey who may come from a similar background,” she said.

Over the past year and a half, the 20-year-old model, who wears a hijab, has appeared in nine magazine covers, including Vogue.

The hijab is a headscarf worn by Muslim women who feel it is part of their religion.

“To think two years ago, I could even pick up a magazine and flip the inside pages and see someone dressed like me. So, it’s been quite the journey.”

A former refugee from South Sudan Mary Nyiriak Maker, who now teaches at the Kakuma camp as a teacher, was also on the line-up of speakers.

The 22-year-old said she returned in the hope of inspiring young people.

“I look at the population in the camp, especially, the population of the young – most of them are hopeless – and seeing me as their teacher who is almost their peer, will actually encourage them to move on, to push on, to see that life is not about the camp”, Nyiriak said

“Life is something more ahead and that’s what I want them to believe.”

The Kakuma camp was set up in 1992, initially to take in mostly Sudanese refugees. It is now hosting about 185,000 people who have fled war or persecution from 19 African countries.

A May 2018 report by the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation and the UNHCR estimates Kakuma’s informal economy is worth $56m.

“Everybody here says that they believe an event like this is extremely important, not just because it counteracts negative stereotypes about refugees but also it will inspire so many refugees around the world,” said Al Jazeera’s Mohammed Jamjoom, reporting from Kakuma.

Melissa Fleming, chief spokesperson for the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, and co-host of TEDxKakumaCamp, said the event was the “most logistically challenging, but also one of the most moving” staged by the TED organization.

“Most Europeans, Australians and Americans think that all the refugees are coming their way, but frankly most of them are in countries like Kenya and yet they’re invisible,” she told Al Jazeera.

“We are hoping with this event, we could really illuminate the camp but also the extraordinary refugees, the talents and ideas they have by putting them on as powerful a stage as the TED stage,” Fleming added.

Additional reporting by Aljazeera

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