Making Ends Meet in Dadaab

Several incidents surprise you in Dagahaley, one of the camps in Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp located in Kenya. One evening, as I was drinking tea somewhere in Dagahaley with youth who either spent most of their lives in the camps or were born here, one of them told me that he never travelled beyond the camps, and could not distinguish Migori (a Kenyan town) from Minnesota.  

Ja’far Abdikadir* is a shoe shiner in Dagahaley. He has been working for a couple of years as the breadwinner for a desperate family comprising of a mother and siblings. Ja’far at the age of 13 years simultaneously manages to go to school and work as a shoe shiner. The latter is the only source of income for this vulnerable family.

“I do shoe shining and go to school at the same time to help myself and my family members,” Ja’far says.

Ja’far is also one of the best students in the school. He tells his story in a mood that depicts self-content and boldness. Ja’far works during the morning, and without fail goes to class every afternoon. Doing the job at the morning hours fetches him a minimum 200 Kenyan shillings (about $2 USD), which helps support his family members.

The young boy takes responsibility of a number of family members whom he terms as his dependents. His mother is sick and can't do any task to generate income for the family. Knowing the situation and challenges in place, Ja’far can't sit and watch his siblings to go uncatered for. He walks a long distance from the camp where he works and the camp where his mother resides to make the evening brighter for his family.

Young people like Ja’far need to be encouraged and given moral, economic, and psychological support that enable them to realize their dreams.

In some instances, people may term what this young boy is doing as an issue of child labor, yet Ja’far can’t sit and wait knowing that there is no one that will provide for his family’s basic needs during this challenging period. The food rations provided by the World Food Program in the camps are not enough for a family without being supplemented with other sources of income.

Even though Ja’far would like to invest most of his time studying like other school-age children, he is losing hope that he will be able to continue studying if the status quo of his current challenges continues. But yet he never loses the courage to persevere, believing that challenges are part of life and those who take the courage to face them will prosper in the end.

Ja’far’s story can instill courage into the lives of desperate street boys and abandoned children who are continuously shunned by society. Young people like Ja’far need to be encouraged and given moral, economic, and psychological support that enable them to realize their dreams.

Ja’far and other young refugees are also in need of societal integration. Because Ja’far belongs the shoe shinning class, he is secluded from society. But he dreams that one day he will pass his school exams, make it to university, and get a full-time job. Though he experiences challenges at a young age, Ja’far’s story is an inspiring tale of courage and ambition amid a hard life.

Abdullahi Mire is a Somali refugee journalist who has lived in Dadaab camp for more than 23 years. He is on Twitter at @miire06.

Top photo: Ja’far (at right) and a friend repairing shoes in Dadaab camp.

*Name has been changed.